Carnivores, Catchments, and Climate: The role of wide-ranging mammalian apex carnivores in water conservation and climate change adaptation in Bhutan

Close up of a tiger's face, showing one eye.

THE ROLE OF APEX PREDATORS IN BHUTAN

Dr Thinley investigates the role of large apex mammalian predators – specifically the tiger (Panthera tigris) and the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) – in catchment hydrology and climate change adaptation, with respect to sustaining freshwater supply.

Researcher: Dr Phuntsho Thinley
School of Environmental and Rural Science

For a considerable number of years now UNE has maintained strong collaborations with the Bhutanese government, and with scientists in the eastern Himalayas, and Dr Phuntsho Thinley has been at the centre of this. The New England region in Australia may seem a long way from his home in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, but in many ways, this is the ideal space for him to continue his outstanding research.

Dr Thinley investigates the role of large apex mammalian predators – specifically the tiger (Panthera tigris) and the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) – in catchment hydrology and climate change adaptation, with respect to sustaining freshwater supply. UNE’s world-leading research cluster in wildlife ecology, aquatic ecology and water management provides Dr Thinley with the best context to pursue this. Dr Thinley will be looking to evaluate whether major differences in vegetation and herbivore assemblages affect water infiltration rates in landscapes with and without large carnivores. He will then determine the optimal large predator-prey and plant assemblages that yield maximum infiltration and rainfall runoff rates within catchments, and develop ecosystem models that define linkages between apex carnivores and ecohydrology. This will provide a mechanism for high altitude ecosystems (like that of Bhutan) to sustain water yield and be resilient against climate change impacts.

Field work will be conducted in South Asia in the Eastern Himalayas, within two large riverine landscapes in Bhutan. The study sites are within a glacial landscape (2200–5200m above sea level), with alpine meadows at high elevations (above 4000m). There are glacial-fed rivers, and a mix of cool temperate broad-leaved forest and mixed coniferous forest at lower elevations (below 4000 m).

The research will measure rainwater infiltration rates and baseflow discharge rates across the gradients of apex carnivores, floral communities, leaf-litter thickness, landform variables, soil characteristics, and grazing regimes. The findings of this research will contribute towards ensuring sustained supplies of freshwater from the Himalayas, which will have direct benefit for nearly 1.75 billion people of South Asia, given Bhutan’s riverine flows are a key component of the massive Ganges Basin itself. It is anticipated that this novel research will change the paradigm of large carnivore management, from viewing them as livelihood threats, to ecosystem service providers. Meaningful ecosystem-based measures for climate change adaption will also be proposed from the research findings. The lessons learned from Bhutan’s context will be a valuable addition to catchment management practices elsewhere in the world.

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