Are Bengal tigers shifting base to Sikkim due to climate change?
Gangtok: A Bengal tiger -- listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List since 2008 -- was recently spotted at Gamthangpu above Lachen Valley in North Sikkim by a camera trap laid out by World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature in collaboration with the Sikkim forest and wildlife department.
It was spotted at an altitude of 3,600 m, the highest recorded elevation for tiger sighting in the country. Worldwide, it was the second highest elevation after Bhutan, where the animal was sighted at an elevation of 4,000 metres in April last year.
Also, this was the second such sighting of the big cat in the Himalayan state since November last year.
While the survey in November was conducted by Japanese International Cooperation Agency, the recent one was conducted by WWF-India as part of its ‘High Altitude Tiger Project’ in the states of West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim in collaboration with National Tiger Conservation Authority.
Earlier in February, the animal was spotted at Ek Ghothey in North Sikkim at an altitude of 3,571 metres at a recorded temperature of -3 degrees Celsius.
The second sighting has filled the state with enthusiasm with many across social media already labelling the tiger as 'Royal Sikkim Tiger'. Keeping aside the public response, the state forest principal chief conservator said, "Based on these photographs, it is established that there is presence of at least two different individual tigers in the area. One of these animals, a male, was photographed at an elevation of 3,600 m which is one of the highest altitudes that tigers have been recorded at in India thus far. In recent weeks, tigers have been photo-captured in camera traps in two different locations in the remote forests of North district of Sikkim.”
Speaking with EastMojo, the PCCF informed how the department has been instrumental in providing the manpower for the project which laid out the camera traps. "Over the course of years, Sikkim has been accustomed to legendary stories of tigers being found, but those were mere oral evidence. In the last three years, there have been reports of cattle being lost to big cats, not being certain of what animal was feeding on them. The survey involved a range of methods including interviews with local communities about the presence and status of tigers and other mammals, sign surveys to detect wildlife presence and camera trapping,” the PCCF added.
The project under WWF India has been up and running for months in Sikkim.
The animal tends to take the circuit which begins in Bengal and takes the route through the dense forest bordering Bhutan and Sikkim reaching beyond the tri-junction area. Apart from the Bengal tiger, the camera traps are said to have captured snow leopards as well, surprisingly in a lower altitude than their natural habitat.
However, the department denied of other herbivores being hampered by the presence of big cats. It also denied animals conflicting with human habitation. Officials termed the low altitude sighting of snow leopard to have been due to increased snowfall over the winters as well as with other herbivores shifting further downhill.
Yet, is climate change taking credit for the same? After the Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) and the extinct Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgate), the Bengal tiger could be the next major species heading up into the snowy habitat. The sub-continent species is spread across 52,671 sq km with the highest being in India (38,915 sq km), followed by Bhutan with 11,543 sq km, and Nepal with 2,215 sq km. Experts believe the increase in habitat is largely due to climate change as the animal is moving towards the higher altitudes.
While tigers have likely always occurred in Sikkim, albeit at low densities, very little is known about their status and distribution. Tigers are widely distributed across Himalayan forests in neighbouring Bhutan, and have been reported from the Dooars and the Neora valley region of North Bengal. The confirmed presence of the species in North Sikkim suggests that the species has persisted across the larger landscape.
Yet there are many questions: are these individuals dispersing tigers, or are they resident in the area? How many tigers does north Sikkim hold? And do these tigers move between forests in Sikkim’s other districts, northern parts of West Bengal and Bhutan? It is clear that the pristine forests and alpine habitats of North Sikkim are immensely valuable habitats for the threatened wildlife species.
In the same area where the tiger was camera trapped, other fauna like Red Panda, Musk Deer, Red Fox, Wild Yak, Sikkim’s State Bird Blood Pheasant and Himalayan Monal were also captured which means that there is good prey base in the habitat.
The department had earlier recorded evidences from Lachung, Torsa Lake, Phyangsi, Kyongnosla with the first photographic evidence from cameras installed in the Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary.