To celebrate International Tiger Day last week, the Uttarakhand government highlighted the expanse of the state’s tiger map from Corbett National Park to Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary. Between the terai and the mountains, Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami flaunted the tiger range from an elevation of 1,181 ft (360 m) to 12,073 ft (3680 m) as a testimony of Uttarakhand’s success in tiger conservation.
The tiger’s usual range is under 6,000 ft (below 1,800 ft, think Kasauli). That makes its presence above 12,000 ft — the elevation of the Kedarnath temple — rare. But tigers have shown up before a strategically placed motion-triggered camera at higher altitudes.
While there have been ample anecdotal accounts of tigers roaming significantly higher slopes of their Himalayan habitats, the global fascination with the so-called high-altitude or snow tigers was triggered by a BBC documentary that claimed to have “discovered a lost tiger population in Bhutan mountains” in 2010.
The documentary, Lost Land of the Tiger, made splashes around the globe, even as conservationists pointed out that the tigers in question were never lost. In fact, the first photographic evidence of a tiger in Bhutan was recorded in 2000 in Phrumsengla national park at 9,728 feet (2,965m), then the highest altitude record of the species.
Then, not long before the BBC team landed in Bhutan, another camera-trap study set a new elevation record for tigers, capturing an adult male in the snow inside Jigme Dorji National Park at 13,780 ft (4,200 m) in 2008. Since the global hype generated in 2010, high-altitude tigers have been photographed in Bhutan on multiple occasions, including the first high resolution capture above 11,000 ft by Emmanuel Rondeau for WWF-UK in 2017.
In 2020, Nepal also captured two ridge-scaling tigers — one at 8,200 ft (2,500 m) in Dadeldhura in April, and another at 10,400 feet (3,165 m) in Kangchenjunga Landscape region in November.
In India, anecdotes of high-altitude tigers survive in community tales, as also in the accounts of hunters, adventurers and naturalists. Back in 1912, in the annals of his expeditions in Tibet and Assam Himalaya, British political officer F M Bailey alluded to the tigers in the high-altitude forests of the Mishmi Hills (Arunachal Pradesh).
Naturalist H S Prater (Bombay National History Society, 1948) observed that “the tiger has left its tracks in the winter snows of the Himalayas at an altitude of 10,000 ft”. In his Man-eaters and Memories (1959), Indian Forest Service officer J E Carrington Turner wrote about shooting a man-eating tiger in Gori Valley, now in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district. In Forbidden Land (1898), anthropologist Arnold Henry Savage Landor described how a Rajwar (belonging to Ban Raji tribe) from Uttarakhand’s Askot offered to take him tiger hunting.
In recent times, a 70-metre-long track of tiger pug marks were spotted in the snow at 10,000 feet near Jelep La — a mountain pass between east Sikkim and Tibet Autonomous Region, China — in March 2009. Photographic evidence emerged in January 2014 in Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh at a relatively modest 5,800 ft (1,765 m). Since 2016, multiple records of tigers above 10,000 feet have been recorded in India:
March 2016: A tigress was camera-trapped at 10,742 ft (3,274 m) in Askot Musk Deer wildlife sanctuary near Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand.
January 2017: Two male tigers were captured at 11,909 ft (3,630 m) and 10,650 ft (3,246 m) in the Mishmi Hills (Dibang Valley) of Arunachal Pradesh. These two were the first photos of tigers (other than Russia’s Amur tigers) in the snow.
December 2018: A tiger was photographed at 9,563 ft (2,915m) in Sikkim’s Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary.
May 2019: A tiger was camera-trapped in Rudraprayag’s Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary at 11,155 ft (3,400m).
Records of high-altitude tigers getting somewhat routine have alarmed a section of conservationists. Warming induced by climate change, they argue, is making the higher mountains tolerable for tigers.
But the fact that tigers are found roaming the snow indicates that their upward movement is not deterred by the cold. A more likely explanation is that tigers, given an opportunity, have always ventured far and wide. Thanks to a better monitoring regime and camera-traps, scientists and managers are now getting to learn more about their actual ranges.
The fact that there are enough tigers in certain pockets to wander around is certainly good news. But that should not prompt hasty proposals, such as declaring a high-altitude area as tiger reserve, or even shifting a conservation area upward, based on a few tiger photos.
Like Siberian tigers do not actually live in Siberia (but in temperate broadleaf-mixed-pine and pure deciduous forests), it is unlikely that tigers spotted in the snow have settled down there. Their survival still depends on the forests below. There can be no trade-off between traditional tiger habitat and these new heights of feline interest.