BBC does a Columbus

The corporation’s Earth News went to town with its discovery of lost tigers that were never lost

By Pankaj Sekhsaria
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

imageOn September 20, BBC published a report in the Earth News section of its web edition that has had the global wildlife and conservation community abuzz.

In the article, ‘Lost tiger population discovered in Bhutan mountains’, editor of Earth News Matt Walker described 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 adults—one male and one female. “The discovery,” the report said, “has stunned experts, as the tigers are living at a higher altitude than any others known and appear to be successfully breeding.” Veteran cameraperson 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?

imageThe report does acknowledge the Bhutan Ministry of Agriculture and Forests and forest guard Phup Tshering, but the heroes of the episode are, of course, the BBC crew and conservationist Alan Rabinowitz, president of conservation organisation, 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.”

The matter begs serious questioning: if people in the area already knew about the tigers, how can anyone claim their discovery? Why does local knowledge continue to be secondary to television crews and scientists?

BBC’s claim is also questionable because there is considerable evidence of the presence of tigers at high altitudes. For instance, a 2001 report of WWF-Bhutan says that in “September 1999, a camera trap set up by a wildlife survey team captured a tiger at 3,400m, 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 3,000m—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, and the May 2010 National Tiger Recovery Programme Summary of Global Tiger Initiative also note that the tiger in Bhutan inhabits an altitude of 100m to 4,100m. Another camera trapping study conducted in 2008 in the Jigme Dorji National Park found both pugmarks and pictures of tigers at an altitude between 3,700m and 4,300m. The web page of IUCN’s Red List of threatened species observes that tigers have been recorded in Bhutan up to 4,500m.

All of this has been ignored in BBC’s claim and the plethora of media reports. News website published a report that noted 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 4,100m. Sonam Wangchuk, head of the Bhutanese Wildlife Conservation Division noted about a year ago, “We’ve found pug marks and droppings (of tigers) at the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Park.”

There are no lost tigers in Bhutan.

Pankaj Sekhsaria edits Protected Area Update, a bi-monthly on wildlife and protected areas

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

  • Mr Sekhsaria, Thank you for

    Mr Sekhsaria, Thank you for writing about this. It's ridiculous , isnt it?...How conservation is used as a peg to become famous around the world....people just want to lap all the credit up...........take for instance, what happened in N.Bengal...with the death of the seven elephants. All the NGOs wanted separate meetings with the Railway Minister.......all of them had different sets of suggestions.....a total lack of serious consorted and unified campaign never happened......because, in the end, does anyone really care?...WWF was quick to point out right after the accident that it had already asked the trains to stop plying at night.......thats that, job done!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • What the BBC team did in

    What the BBC team did in Bhutan is to qualify the most popular statement used in Bhutan "Yak herder shouts (blows the trumpet) when the load is being carried by the Yak/pony".
    When the tigers in Bhutan are conserved and protected by the conservationists and government of Bhutan, BBC takes the credit without proper acknowledgment.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Pankaj, Did you know

    Dear Pankaj,
    Did you know that Mr Gordon Buchanan actually not set up the camera traps - he was in Bhutan only for two weeks and that just to appear in the documentary pretending to set up cameras. It was field staff of Park and other BBC team who has set up the cameras using past survey experience of our staff. In the series they have made a mention of "No body knows the numbers of tigers in Bhutan" - the statement undermine Department of Forests & Park Services past work on tiger conservation, and it also clearly indicates the amount of fact finding they have done. There are many other false statements they have conveniently used in the documentary. And the worst was they did not bothered to review the documentary prior to public screening which was mandated as per the approval - it was a complete breach of trust!!!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Every Bhutanese in Bhutan

    Every Bhutanese in Bhutan knows that there are tigers in the forest of Bhutan. Tigers have always been a part of the cultural and natural landscape of Bhutan. This has been further authenticated by a nation wide survey conducted with the help of eminent tiger specialist Dr. Charles McDougal between 1995 -1998 through support of the WWF. The findings presented Bhutan with a healthy population of tigers found in a continuous range. This resulted in the governmentÔÇÖs further commitment to conservation by declaring biological corridors linking the protected areas in Bhutan to create a landscape approach to conservation.
    BBC producers are probably well aware of BhutanÔÇÖs commitment to conservation and the status of tiger conservation in Bhutan. However they seemed to have very conveniently pretended to be ignorant to these facts to create a sensational story. It is therefore very unprofessional of them to pass such misleading information to attract global attention.
    Should you want to know more of tigers in Bhutan please contact the Department of Forests in Bhutan. Meanwhile take this production as another Indiana Jones entertainment.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Don't worry unduly, the BBC

    Don't worry unduly, the BBC always acts like this... it's a law unto itself in the UK too. Thank you for showing them up on this occasion!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks for posting this.

    Thanks for posting this.

    Although I hadn't read the earlier Bhutan or IUCN report, it did occur to me that it was ludicrous to assume that forests in Bhutan didn't contain tigers!

    Is not the highly productive Manas belt adjacent to many of the jungles shown in the documentary? No naturalist in their right mind would have bet aganst the presence of tigers in that forest.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply