My first tiger sighting in Bhutan

Posted on
04 March 2022

By Ngawang Gyeltshen, UNDP

Beginning of this year, I saw my first wild tiger in Bhutan!
As we drove back to our village homestay in Zhemgang, it was late dusk. It was a long day in the field, but the snaky, bumpy, and narrow roads kept us awake.

Zhemgang has the highest forest cover for any district in Bhutan - an impressive 94%. Its dominant rich warm-broadleaved forest ecosystem house an incredible array of biodiversity. A single district’s number of bird species is more than that of an entire Europe. Therefore, driving through forests at night is a night safari. Sighting antelopes, primates, and pheasants are common. Hornbills are also common and sought after. But sighting elusive cats is rare.
We almost reached our destination - Buli, an area rich with history, myths and culture. The village lights were beginning to greet us. Our car stopped....

A hushed, excited voice who spotted something interrupted our normal conversation: Tiger!

Seemingly out of nowhere, we spotted an unusual pair of eyes between the road culverts. They glowed against our car headlights. There it was! Majestic, Graceful and Confident. It was an attractive young and healthy adult. Emerging from the bushes, it gracefully walked past us before disappearing into the woods. It was a very brief moment, but we talked about it for hours and days. The more we recollected and described, we painted a better picture to etch forever in our memories.

It was such an incredible experience that my friends and I boasted for days. The experience was enough to assuage the woes of another COVID outbreak and the lockdowns that ensued.
I always wished I could see a tiger in the wild in Bhutan in my lifetime. And Zhemgang is a haven accounting for one-fifth of Bhutan’s tigers. I had to see one here if I would. Our day had begun well. As we were leaving our campsite, a White-bellied heron flew overhead. On our way, we spotted a troop of Golden Langurs. And countless birds. We were destined to end our day well - aptly with a tiger sighting to start the Year of the Tiger.

We excitedly called the Local Forestry Chief, who jokingly demanded we pay for the sighting.

Tiger population dwindled in the last century, but efforts in the last decade have proven successes in their conservation. Nations have committed to doubling their numbers. As nations, including Bhutan, count tigers this year, I am excited to see our new numbers after a decade. We counted 103 in 2015.
For Bhutan, the tigers must roam freely to command our mountain stronghold. Human-wildlife conflict is a delicate balance, but we must protect to protect ourselves. Tigers are ecosystem engineers and we must strive to 'recover key species for ecosystem restoration'.
Historically, tigers have had a hard time at the hands of humans. But conservation is now responding. I pray that 2022 is the Year that ‘Tigers burn brighter than humanity can ever extinguish!’