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Growing up in Bhutan, I often heard the many myths and legends of a fierce and powerful creature that stalked the forests of my home country—the tiger. Its orange and black coat created a striking contrast against the green hues of its surroundings. I was captivated by the stories my elders and teachers would tell me about the elegant ferocity and commanding, elusive presence of this animal—and how rare it was to see one, making it the stuff of legends.
Before I even knew that I wanted to devote myself to wildlife conservation when I grew up, I had tremendous respect for the awe-inspiring tiger—or Taag as they are called in Dzongkha, my native language. They’re embedded in my culture. It is said that Padmasambhava, a legendary Buddhist master often referred to as “The Second Buddha,” flew on the back of a tigress to meditate in the clifftops of Bhutan in an area where Paro Taktsang, or “Tiger’s Nest,” monastery now sits. I still remember that wide-eyed child who was utterly captivated and enthralled by the grandeur of these creatures. And as I grew, I carried that inspiration with me as I discovered my passion for conservation, becoming the active voice for the animals I read about in my childhood stories.
Last year, the world celebrated the official Year of the Tiger in the Lunar calendar—a year that held significance for many people around the world, particularly in East Asia, because tigers embody the values of courage, respect, and resilience. I knew the Year of the Tiger offered a message of hope and triumph over obstacles and reminded us of our primal connection to nature. As a conservationist, I had seen this year as a moment for celebration and renewed commitments to their protection and recovery of tigers in the wild. Tigers have been facing unprecedented threats for many years, but conservation efforts over the past decade have shown that recovering tigers from the brink of extinction is possible when we transcend boundaries and work together. I have witnessed how Bhutan’s cultural reverence and love for wildlife and nature have shaped the country’s conservation efforts. Bhutan has designated 52% of the country’s total area as protected lands, all prime habitat for tigers and their prey.
In my culture, tigers are not regarded as biological specimens, but instead as spiritual entities and symbols. Tiger is one of the four auspicious creatures (Taag, Seng, Chung, Druk) and the only real one. The other three are mythical—the garuda, snow lion, and dragon. It is believed that these four sacred creatures represent qualities and attitudes that Bodhisattvas—Buddhists on the path to enlightenment—cultivate on their way.
Tigers have been threaded into stories, religion, and ways of life for centuries. And they are intricately connected to nature’s web of life. Tigers are instrumental in maintaining the healthy forests, rivers, and streams we all depend upon. And they continue to be our teachers and spiritual guides, showing us just how connected we are to each other and the environment around us. That primal connection to nature—through our history, culture, and experiences—can be very powerful in inspiring us to take action and informing the conservation decisions we make. In Bhutan, culture has always been an integral part of the country’s conservation work, and our development philosophy of gross national happiness, or, simply put, our development with values.
Tigers need our help, now more than ever. And so, even though we’ve left the Year of the Tiger, my wish going forward is that we harness the symbolic qualities and teachings of the tiger and hold on to that spirit of tenacity, partnership, and perseverance to protect and give back to nature and its bountiful offerings, using what it has taught and how it has inspired us.
Despite my many years of working in conservation, I have yet to have the great luck of seeing a tiger in all its glory in the wild, though the child in me continues to dream that I will someday soon. But for that to happen, I ask that we all promise to make each coming year a better one for tigers and the vision they represent, ensuring that they stay forever wild and thriving and not just the stuff of paintings or statues adorning a temple wall, joining the other three mythical animals.