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BBC Does a Columbus - finds the lost tigers of Bhutan

On September 20, BBC published a report in its Earth News section of its web edition that has had the global wildlife and conservation community abuzz with excitement. In the article, ‘Lost tiger population discovered in Bhutan mountains’, editor Earth News, Matt Walker, described with unconcealed enthusiasm the expedition where the BBC team “left (camera) traps at an altitude of between 3,000m and 4,100m” in the Bhutan mountains for many months and returned eventually with footage of two adult tigers - one male and one female. “The discovery,” the report says, “has stunned experts, as the tigers are living at a higher altitude than any others known and appear to be successfully breeding.” Veteran cameraman Gordon Buchanan, who was on the expedition, was reportedly moved to tears when he saw the footage.

In a world starved of good news about wildlife, the global media lapped up this discovery. The BBC claim was relayed and published widely with no questions asked at all. It didn’t occur to anyone to ask what a ‘lost tiger population’ meant? When was it lost for it to have been discovered now? The BBC team had got the footage for sure, but how did they know where to put up the cameras in the first place?

The report does acknowledge the Bhutan Ministry of Agriculture and Forests and Forest Guard Phup Tshering, but the heroes of the entire episode are, of course, the BBC crew and conservationist Alan Rabinowitz, President of conservation organization, Panthera, and leader of the expedition. Walker credits Rabinowitz with having “suspected that tigers may also be living at higher altitude, following anecdotal reports by villagers suggesting that some were roaming as high as 4000m (13,000ft).”

The matter begs serious questioning: if local people had already known of the presence of the tigers, how can anyone claim their discovery? Why is it that local knowledge and understanding continues to be secondary to television crews
and scientists?
BBC's claim is not questionable only on semantics grounds and on its politics of lost, found and discovery, but also from the fact that there is considerable ‘hard’ evidence of the presence of
tigers at high altitudes. For instance, a 2001 report of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – Bhutan Program says that in “September 1999, a camera trap set up by a wildlife survey team captured a tiger at 3,400 meters, the highest altitude ever recorded for a tiger. In its note on the ThrumshingLa National Park, the Bhutanese Tourism Ministry notes: “the park made news in the year 2000 when a WWF -supported survey team captured a camera-trap image of a tiger at 3,000 meters – the first photographic evidence that the magnificent creatures exist at such high altitudes.” More recent documents like The Tiger Action Plan for the Kingdom of Bhutan 2006-2015 published by the Nature Conservation Division of Bhutan’s Ministry of Agriculture along with the wwf Bhutan Program and the May 2010 National Tiger Recovery Program Summary of Global Tiger Initiative also note that the tiger in Bhutan inhabits ranges from an altitude of 100m to 4100 m about sea level. Another camera trapping study conducted in 2008 in the Jigme Dorji National Park found both pugmarks and pictures of tigers at an altitude between 3,700 and 4,300 meters above sea level. Even the web page of iucn’s Red List of threatened species observes that tigers have been recorded in Bhutan upto 4,500 meters above sea level.

All of this has been completely ignored in BBC’s claim and the plethora of media reports that appeared in the wake of this ‘find’ and ‘discovery’. There was one voice of contestation that came, not surprisingly, from wildlife researchers in Bhutan. Not surprisingly, further, this voice has been completely drowned out. The online news site published a report on BBC's claim with a title that was as subtle as it was instructive. “Cameras catch big cat at 4,000 m plus”, the headline said, followed by the subtitle “Further evidence of the wide range of the tiger in Bhutan”. The report noted incisively that Bhutanese wildlife conservationists were not calling it a ‘discovery’ but only more ‘evidence’ to prove that tigers do roam the jungles of Bhutan at an altitude as high as 4,100 m. Sonam Wangchuk, head of the Bhutanese Wildlife Conservation Division noted about their findings of about a year ago: “We’ve found pug marks and droppings (of tigers) at the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck national park. The only thing we don’t have is a footage of them.”

The gulf between the reality on the ground and what has been claimed is too evident to have been missed. There are no lost tigers in Bhutan. There is no way anyone could have found or discovered them.

A shorter version of the same story with the title 'BBC does a Columbus' was published in the 'Down to Earth' issue of October 15-31, 2010 See -

Pankaj Sekhsaria edits the Protected Area Update – a bi-monthly newsletter on wildlife and protected areas.See:

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