In Flesh and Feathers

Features Issue 116 Jun, 2011
Text by Kapil Bisht / Photo: ECS Media

Looking back at Nepal’s rich wilderness and bio-diversity
In the World Heritage Site area of the Syombhunath Hill, at the base of its southern face, is the old, red monument that houses Nepal’s natural heritage. That building is the Natural History Museum.

Since its establishment in 1975, the Natural History Museum has been collecting specimens of Nepal’s flora and fauna. Today, its collection has surged to over 50,000. The museum’s collection is a true treasure trove for anyone interested in wildlife. The list of the specimen numbers in its collections is impressive: butterflies and moths (14,843), beetles (4,142), dragonflies (1,464), other insects (1,604), lower chordates (6), fish (890), amphibians (107), reptiles (390), birds (1,194), mammals (225), skeletons (22), fossils and animal body parts (964). It also has 107 models of plastic-clay and 74 of rock and minerals. It has a rich botanical and mycological collection too: algae (124), fungi and mushrooms (2,320), lichens (61), bryophytes (1,124), pteridophytes (507), gymnosperms (163), and angiosperms (5,034). Partly because the museum hasn’t been able to develop its infrastructure in response to its collection’s growth and also because it adheres to the norms of the museum world, only 5000 of the total specimens are on display.

Although lifeless and mute, the specimens produce the same sense of grandeur and curiosity, of loss and yearning that an old map of one’s country showing its ceded territory does. “A museum of natural history is a reflection of Nature, a means for comparison. It shows what we have or have had and allows comparisons to be made between the past and the present,” says Dr. Keshab Shrestha, Chief of the museum. According to Professor Karan Bahandur Shah, head of the museum’s herpetology and mammal section, the past becomes tangible in the museum. “Here you can see and touch animals that are extinct or that you have only read about in books and seen in photographs,” he says.

Beside most of the animal and bird specimens on display are small cards bearing the particular specimen’s scientific name, common name, Nepali name, and description of its habitat. In the lowest line appear the words ‘common’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘endangered’, or the disheartening ‘extinct’—indicators of the particular specimen’s status in the wild. To visitors that have been following the status of wildlife in the country, the information on the cards is not only obsolete but depressing. They know the ‘common’ are common no more; that there’s no security for the ‘vulnerable’ and they know not how long the ‘endangered’ have before they become ‘extinct’.

But not all specimens spell doom for their kind or spread gloom in the visitor’s heart. When I saw on the card beside a bird the words ‘Comb Duck’, memories of the ducks flying over the paddy fields in the Terai during monsoon and their sonorous cries came back to me. And something as simple as a flask made out of a gourd and a pitcher of wicker reminded me of the Tharus of my hometown. I remembered Tharus drinking from the flasks and how they placed the fish they had caught into the wicker pitchers that hung from their waists. On a board and under the heading ‘species of butterflies that have disappeared from Godavari’ some butterflies have been pinned. Although a sense of loss is felt on seeing the specimens, it is also a sight that would evoke happy memories for anyone that visited or lived in the Godavari area when these butterflies were around. Visitors can see their nation’s natural wealth and history in the museum, but there’s an equal chance that they’ll discover personal memories as well.

There are also specimens of wildlife that would be almost impossible to observe in their natural habitats, or alive. The museum is perhaps the most convenient place to observe the endemic and elusive Spiny Babbler. It is the only place to see the Mouse Deer (Indian Chevrotain), which is believed to be extinct in Nepal. I came to know from specimens that there are places in Nepal where I can see flamingos and pelicans, which I thought, I could only see on National Geographic. (I was convinced of their occurrence in Nepal only after Dr. Hem Sagar Baral, an eminent Nepali ornithologist, told me that these birds were migrants). Specimens of nature’s artistic works like the Golden Pheasant, an exotic bird from China, balance some of its grotesque creations: an eight-legged embryo of a goat, a four-legged chick, and a two-headed snake.

A tour of the museum is a spectacle ranging from one end to the other in terms of size: 13-feet pythons, 12-feet gharials, the Sarus Crane, which at 5 feet is one of the largest birds in the world, and the Atlas Moth, the world’s largest moth, measuring between 6.3 inches to 11.18 inches, and bones of elephants share the museum with snakes that are a few inches long and the skeleton of a domestic cat. The fossilized skull of the Archidiskodon, an elephant that roamed the Siwalik Hills of Nepal and the molar teeth of Shivapithecus, a hominoid, are believed to be around 3 million years and 8-10 million years old, respectively. The Karan’s Pit Viper was discovered by Professor Karan Bahadur Shah in 1998.  It also has a specimen of the Bajhang frog (Paa ercepeae), a frog species endemic to Nepal.   

The sight of some specimens took me back in time. When I saw a Great Indian Hornbill in a glass case, eyes shut as though in a deep slumber, I imagined it in the ancient forests that this majestic bird once inhabited in great numbers. I tried to picture the forest cover of the Ichangu Narayan area in north-east Kathmandu, where a King Cobra had been captured. Coiled, mounted, laid out in a file, or pinned to boards, the specimens are historical records in flesh and feathers; they transcend time and life itself.

Not just a storeroom
Dr. Shrestha believes the influence of the museum is not just limited to the exhibition hall, nor that preservation is its only function. “This museum is not just a place for storage. It can be a center for scientific research and a medium for raising awareness on our country’s biodiversity,” he says. For Shrestha, a natural history museum should reach out to the scientific world and the common people with its knowledge and information. The Natural History Museum did that in the past through its mobile awareness camps, where it took some of its specimens to various places in the country and put them on display for schools and villages. The response from the public was memorable. “For years after our visits, people used to write to me, inquiring about the status of some of the species they had seen during the exhibition. Some even wrote poems on the animals,” he recollects. Unfortunately, the program was discontinued after 1990.

In Shrestha’s opinion, the exploitation of Nepal’s biodiversity has its roots in ignorance. “Our museum can provide information and knowledge on wildlife to people,” he says. Since its establishment, the museum has continued to be a center for research and study on Nepal’s biodiversity. It collects, identifies, and preserves specimens of the country’s flora and fauna. Each specimen is registered in the museum’s database and is a step towards one of their goals ‘to create a complete collection of the Nepalese flora and fauna’. The museum uses the data and findings from its research and specimen collections to ascertain the status of Nepal’s biodiversity. It then disseminates the information and knowledge thus obtained to the public. For this purpose, the museum has been publishing the Journal of Natural History Museum – the oldest journal on nature in Nepal – annually, since 1977. It has also brought out a number of books and field guides on wildlife, such as snakes and butterflies. Shrestha also told me that the manuscript for a book on the museum is ready.  

The museum is the scientific authority in fauna for CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in Nepal. It conducts training programs on CITES-related issues for teachers, students, and people working in Nepal’s conservation sector. It also holds regular trainings in taxidermy.   

Lessons from the dead
The specimens in the museum, Shrestha believes, help us learn about nature. “A dead animal is not useless; they serve us even after dying. They teach us how things were and how they will be. The specimens we have are a source for reference for scientific study,” he states. He believes that wildlife, like any other resource, should be re-used. “Specimens of wild animals – those that die of natural causes or those that are confiscated – can be used for posterity,” he says.

Shrestha wants to put Nepal’s natural wealth on display for the people who, he feels, are oblivious of their natural riches. “A look at the specimens reveals our natural richness. People should be able to see what Nepal has and what it had,” he says.    

During his years of working in the Natural History Museum, Shrestha has seen dead specimens instill an appreciation for life in people. “People see a specimen, and they think, ‘If this specimen is so beautiful, how pretty must it be alive, in the wild’. During and after a visit to the museum, people acquire a new sensitivity and perspective towards what they took for granted and treated indifferently. In Kathmandu, we no longer hear a frog’s croak or a jackal’s howl. When people come to the museum and read about the role of frogs and jackals in our eco-systems, they realize the importance of these creatures,” he explains.

The museum may have realized the importance of our nation’s natural wealth, but the government or the people are yet to realize the museum’s importance. Our nation’s annual budget does not allocate any funds for the country’s only museum of natural history. Even among the inhabitants of Kathmandu only a few people know that such a museum exists. Fewer know where it’s located.

In the absence of government funding and policies, lack of infrastructure, and interest among the public, the Natural History Museum has acquired the look of a taxidermist’s unfinished work; the appearance shadows the vision. I asked Shrestha what the reasons for government and public apathy towards the museum could be. He had no explanations for it. I suggested that maybe it was because the museum’s specimens of dead birds and animals were after all a poor substitute for the live ones in a forest. He told me he accepted the museum’s status as a substitute. But he also said that it had some advantages over a jungle, too. “You cannot see everything that lives in a forest or do what you want when you’re there. In our museum, however, you can see and do much more. You can touch a crocodile, count its teeth, and measure its snout,” he said.

 The issue, however, is not what one can see in the Natural History Museum, but what the specimens look like. One recent visitor, a Belgian-French citizen, was disturbed by the difference in what he had read on the museum’s brochure and what he saw on display. His photographs of the disintegrating specimens appeared on the center page of a local English daily. He expressed his anguish in a paragraph succeeding excerpts from the museum brochure: …I spent a bit more than two hours in the museum, trying to understand the gap between what I read and what I was seeing…It became rapidly clear that this strange disintegrating microcosm could only be seen as a metaphor of the situation of the whole country.

The above-mentioned observations aren’t exaggerations on the visitor’s part, but it would be a mistake to consider them as the only way to describe the museum. Deciding against visiting the museum because it’s not in a good condition is like not visiting the attic because it’s dusty. Sometimes the best aspects of our past lie hidden in places where we don’t bother to look. The Natural History Museum is one such place. Visit the Natural History Museum and discover the richness of Nepal’s biodiversity.

And don’t forget to count the crocodile’s teeth.

Coiled, mounted, laid out in a file, or pinned to boards, the specimens are historical records in flesh and feathers.

The article on the museum’s plight was written by Frédéric Lecloux and was published in Republica. The Natural History Museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm (10 am to 4 pm in winter) on all days except Saturdays and public holidays. For more information, call 01-4271899, or e-mail