What lies beyond protected areas for carnivores in a Himalayan conservation landscape?

February 25, 2023

By Karma Choki

We often think of tigers and protected areas when we think of Bhutan. But Bhutan has more to offer. Steered by sound conservation policy and stern environmental legislation, Bhutan’s conservation landscape provides a haven for wildlife. Although Bhutan is known for protecting more than half of its total geographical land, little is known about conservation outside the protected area network. The recent developments in conservation financing, known as Bhutan for Life, offer optimism for long-term funding for conservation across protected and non-protected areas. In this study, we provide evidence of the importance of and hence the urgency to share funds among non-protected areas. Our study was conducted in one of the territorial forest divisions in southern Bhutan. We surveyed the entire division using camera traps between December 2019 and March 2020. Our study focuses on three lesser-known carnivores, the dhole (Cuon alpinus), the Asian golden cat (Catopuma timminckii) and the leopard cat (Prionailuris bengalensis). We used occupancy models to assess the relationship between the study species and environmental factors and predict their distribution. The habitat use probability generally decreased with elevation and increased with forest cover though subtle nuances were observed among species. For example, golden cats and leopard cats showed a positive relationship with open forest cover whereas, dholes were negatively associated with non-forest (% of the land with less than 20% forest cover). The human settlement had a weak positive influence on the habitat use of golden and leopard cats but a negative influence on dhole. Our findings also suggest that the patterns of sympatry among carnivores are also mediated by prey abundance (negatively affecting dholes and golden cats). Put together, our findings suggest that human settlement negatively affects carnivore habitat use while protecting forests could potentially offset the effect of human settlement. Multi-carnivore conservation in non-protected areas can be achieved by minimising land-use change, limiting forest conversion and protecting prey species. This entails recognising the importance of non-protected areas and adequately funding them to intensify and upscale monitoring (for example, anti-poaching patrols and mitigating human-wildlife conflict). We hope our case study will instigate developing a stronger case for managing and protecting carnivores and wildlife per se in non-protected areas.

Choki, K., Dhendup, P., Tenzin, J., Dorji, D., Tenzin, K., Wangmo, T. and Penjor, U., 2023. Conservation potential of non-protected area for sympatric carnivores in BhutanGlobal Ecology and Conservation42, p.e02392.