In December 2012, when the villagers of the Idu Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh spotted three tiger cubs somewhere in the Dibang Valley district, they immediately reported it to the forest department. No one really knew how the cubs had landed up there. In the past, there were hints of their presence — sometimes anecdotal, often mythological but never scientific.
As far back as 1912, Captain FM Bailey of the Indian Army alluded to the “occurrence of tigers in the high altitude forests of the Mishmi Hills (which falls under the Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh).”
The Idu Mishmi tribe itself — the 12,000-strong sub-tribe of the ethnic Mishmis of Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh — are known to have deep respect for tigers.
“But it was only 2012 — when the tiger cubs were spotted that the scientific community got involved,” says GV Gopi of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). The cubs were soon moved to Itanagar zoo, 900 kms from where they were captured.
Following that, a preliminary survey was carried out by the WII in collaboration with National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in 2014. Led by Gopi, and Aisho Sharma Adhikarimayum, who is currently a PHD scholar at the WII, the short survey threw up concrete evidence that tigers did reside in the higher reaches of the Mishmi Hills.
“In January 2014, our camera trap captured a partial image of tiger,” says Gopi, “The chief takeaway from the survey was that the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary, in which the Mishmi Hills are located, holds one of the highest range for the tigers in the country.”
Often believed to occupy only lower altitudes, studies of tigers occupying higher reaches are not very common. However, seeing the Mishmi Hills potential, the NTCA sanctioned another survey in 2015, again under Gopi and Adhikarimayum — long term and higher up.
Three years of trekking to the remotest reaches of the Mishmi Hills and setting up of 108 camera traps, the survey results have been published in the current issue of the Journal of Threatened Taxa: 42 images of 11 individual tigers including two cubs were recorded.
“In the highest altitudes, two male tigers were captured at 3,246m and 3,630m. The latter elevation is the highest photographic evidence of tiger presence in the Indian part of the Eastern Himalayas,” says Gopi.
In Bhutan, there has been recorded evidence of tigers up to an altitude of 4,200m. In Western Himalayan range, in the forests of Uttarakhand, tigers have been spotted at around 4,000 m, too. The findings of the latter have, however, remained inconclusive so far.
“But considering the vegetation of different areas vary, there is no point comparing these altitudes. For example, the higher reaches of the Western Himalayan habitat is dry, while the the area of our study receives snowfall. The relevance, then, is more about the terrain, and less about altitude.” says Adhikarimayum, “Our study has revealed the first photographic evidence of tigers in the snow, after Russia’s Amur tigers.”
There are 9 recorded sub-species of tigers in the world: Sumatran, Amur (Siberian), Indian (Bengal), South China, Malayan, Indo-Chinese. Three (Caspian, Javan and Bali) are extinct.
The surveyors are certain that there are tigers even further up the Mishmi Hills. “We only carried out the survey in in 330 square km out of the 4,000 sq km of the Dibang sanctuary — and kept it limited to the river valleys. If we had gone further up, we would have definitely found more.” The Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary — located in the Dibang Valley District and surrounded by China in the north and east — mostly extends over the Mishmi Hills.
In the next phase of the survey, yet to be officially sanctioned, the team will cover more ground area. “The Mishmi cubs discovered in 2012 were later studied in the lab. While the Mishmi tigers fall under the ‘Bengal tiger’ species, they are definitely bigger and stronger,” says Adhikarimayum, “The vegetation and the sub-zero temperatures might be contributory factors.” Scat analyses shows that the tigers of Mishmi Hills prey on the indigenous Takin or goat antelope of the Eastern Himalayas.
Says Gopi, “The area is not a designated tiger reserve. However, it is interesting that more tigers are found here than in other designated tiger reserves in Arunachal Pradesh such as Pakke, Namdapha, and Kamlang.”
Adhikarimayum credits this to the inhabitants of the region: the Idu Mishmis. “The only reason tigers continue to exist here and in such great numbers is because the tribe not only respects the animal, but have many mythological beliefs regarding it,” says Adhikarimayum, “For the Idu Mishmis, the tiger is like their brother.” Adds Gopi, “Now that we have done this survey, the immediate priority must be to ensure that the newly-discovered populations are protected and monitored to identify potential genetic uniqueness.”