Hari Sharan Nepali: An Avid Birder Turned Ornithologist

Features Issue 88 Jul, 2010
Text by Amendra Pokharel / Photo: ECS Media

If your profession is also your passion, the one thing you will never have to bother about is a retirement plan. Though, only few people realize what they want to do all their life. Those who discover a lifelong passion at an early age are, therefore, rare and exceptional.

Hari Sharan Nepali, or ‘Kazi Dai’ to those who know him well, discovered that he wanted to devote all his life to birds when he was just 13. And that is why he is rare and exceptional. He is the first and the most well-known ornithologist of Nepal; therefore his studies never took place inside a classroom. He never paid attention to his teachers, but when he was in the forest, he was all ears to the twitters and chirpings of birds. The blabber of his teachers lacked the verve to hold him inside the class as the calls of birds pulled him to the forest.

“On holidays and Saturdays I always went to the nearby forests and hills, but even on the days when school was open I hardly ever attended the classes,” says Hari. Then with slightly embarrassed smile he adds, “There was always somebody from my family making a case for me during examinations as the school wouldn’t allow me to sit for the tests due to attendance shortage.” At Durbar High School, Hari was tagged a loafer. “Despite the dismal attendance, I always managed to secure good results,” he says.

So in his early days, while his friends made rounds of Ason and Indrachowk, Hari sneaked into Shivapuri forest, Godavari and Phulchowki hill to find new birds. During winter when migratory birds gathered around riverside at Bishnumati, Chobar, Shangri Khola, Manohara and Tokha, he went with his friends to study the birds. While his friends swam and fished, Hari silently watched the birds and sometimes shot them to make a closer study. He never bothered to get into a college because they did not offer the course he wanted to study. The only school that Hari regularly attended was Nature’s School, and the only lectures he ever paid attention to were the cries of various birds. You don’t, therefore, stand a chance against him on his knowledge about birds. He can, for example, tell the order, family and species of most birds found in Nepal just by listening to their sounds. Beat that and you will be someone in the field of ornithology!

In the forties, when as a teenager he used to wander into the forest with a catapult, he had not the faintest idea what his passion would lead to. Hari started collecting the specimens of birds found in Nepal since 1952. In 1955, he organized an exhibition of stuffed birds along with a friend during King Mahendra’s coronation. “We had a sizeable collection, but did not have enough information on many of the birds,” says Hari. “When we enquired the shopkeeper of the Ratna Pustak Bhandar about books on birds, we became a subject of derision. He thought we were kidding and treated us with disdain.” All he had in the store, says Hari, was Hanuman Chalisa (a prayer book praising the virtues of the monkey-god, Hanuman) and some other religious books. “During that time we were lucky to get some help from our British friends, but then I made up my mind to take my research and specimen collection seriously,” says Hari.

By 1975, at the time of King Birendra’s coronation, Hari had collected enough specimens of his own and had gathered all the required information about them to be able to put on a solo exhibition of stuffed birds. Hari’s collection is now in Natural History Museum at Chauni.

But his achievements don’t stop there. In 1979 he was invited by the then president of Hyatt Hotel, Tom Prietzker, to visit USA. He and Tom hit it quite well during an expedition that Hari was guiding. Impressed, Tom offered to be Hari’s guide in America and made all arrangements for his visits. “Even in the US, the first thing I wanted to go see in the cities I visited were the museums,” says Hari. Then just a few years ago when ex-President Jimmy Carter was in Nepal, Hari was asked to be his guide for bird watching in Shivapuri. “When I was in US I had visited the White House. At that time Carter was the President. Carter was very amused when I showed him the visitor’s card he had signed,” says Hari.  

In his quest to record the birds found in Nepal, Hari trekked the full length of the country, from Mechi to Mahakali, three times. No wonder then that he has collected 700 different specimens out of the total 875 species of birds found in Nepal. He is credited in different books on birds by Nepalese and foreign authors for discovering several birds for the first time in Nepal.

There are several incidences etched in his memories of the time when he wandered in his quest to record the bird species. The enduring solemn expression from his eyes and face gives way to a sudden gleam as he reminisces about his wanderings.

“I always looked for an opportunity to slip away into different places in search of birds. For short excursions I used to visit Shivapuri and Godavari, and for long expeditions I went to Gosainkunda and Langtang,” he says. But it wasn’t always fun. He has had to put up with great many difficulties, sometimes near death situations.

“Once on my way to Langtang for a weekly excursion I ran out of food and fuel supplies,” he recounts. “I had a cook and two porters assisting me on that trip. I sent the three of them back to Kathmandu to get the supplies,” he says. In their absence, Hari deliberately made and ate thin pancakes to be sure that he had enough to eat till they came back. “After three days my cook returned and I asked him how far the porters were. He looked gobsmacked!” says Hari. “The porters had run away with all the fuel and food supplies early in the morning before he was awake,” says Hari, letting out a wistful and mellowed laughter. “I had to cancel that trip,” says Hari, drawing himself back from the nostalgia.  

Then he goes on to narrate another incident when he was in Dukpu, near the Ganjala Pass just below the Langtang mountain range. “I heard a sound of a bird and shot it down. The bird fell away at some distance and I rushed to the spot,” he says. “Sadly enough, the bird was an Alpine Accentor about which I already had all the details. But to my horror, in the zest of a moment I had jumped a cleft that looked very deep since I couldn’t see its bottom,” says Hari, as the tension grows in his face. “I had hopped across the cleft in a state of frenzy, so after the excitement wore down, jumping back seemed difficult,” he says. “Though the gap wasn’t very wide, the invisible depth got the better of my guts and several minutes elapsed before I could muster up the courage to spring back to the other side.”  

“The worst experience I have had was during a expedition round Ganesh Himal when I was guiding a group of American naturalists,” he says. One day, as he led the group into a village, some of the locals followed them brandishing several caged pheasants they had captured. “They thought we were there to hunt and that the Americans would buy the birds,” says Hari. “The naturalists, naturally, got annoyed on seeing the birds in cages. They paid whatever money the villagers demanded and bought the birds, only to set them free later, deeper into the forest.”

That evening, as the group began to set the camp up for the night, in a village at the base of Ganesh Himal, Hari set out alone in search of a new species of bird. “Driven by my quest I wandered off too far and for too long a time. The route was not very familiar and it was getting dark,” he recalls. “Suddenly I noticed that the air was getting chillier and the ground beneath frozen. I was nervous, confused and scared as hell. I tried to follow my footmarks on the snow but nothing was clear under the shadowy light. After roving around fruitlessly in the dark, I finally managed to locate a track that looked familiar and soon I was back with my group. Had I been wandering for another half an hour, he says, I would have frozen to death.”

A life well spent is the one that is pleasant to look back at. And by that standard, Hari has lived a very successful life, one without regrets. “In the end everyone has to hold on to something to get on in life. I chose birds and devoted more than 50 years of my life going after them,” he says. At 78, he still goes after them every morning. Yes, to Shivapuri on week days and to Godavari on weekends. Set aside in one corner of his room full of certificates, photographs and books related in some way or the other to his life long quest, the birds, are two green colored bags from his old days. Those bags contain two sets of recorders, a camera, binoculars, a water bottle, some books and other gear that he might need during a bird watching trip. He’s all set to hit the road to go birding...