Nepal's Bird Man: Hari Sharan Nepali

Features Issue 19 Aug, 2010

“Look!” he shouted
pleasantly, pointing approximately 80 feet up a nearby tree, “there’s an Indian cuckoo!” We strained our eyes to see, but we were only able to discern a dim black spot moving around. Hari Sharan Nepali was explaining the cuckoo’s features as if he were our teacher and we his students.  We wondered how he could see it so clearly at that height. We were trying to spot it with binoculars, but were still unable. “Listen”, he said again, became excited, “do you hear that sound? It’s a blue-throated barbet speaking with nature.” And he explained various species of the pheasant and their behaviors.

There were four of us with Hari Sharan-ji: Ashesh, Bishwa, Sunil and myself, all walking through Raniban (just 15 minute’s drive from Balaju) for bird watching on a delightful Saturday morning. Hari Sharan-ji answered each of our questions  without any hesitation. It was amazing for us to experience such detailed knowledge. He explained to us about several types of cuckoos, pheasants, barbets, wood-peckers, kites, and thrush which we were able to see there. According to him, 160 to 170 species of birds can be found in Raniban. It was a real pleasure for us to walk there with Hari Sharan Nepali and three hours went by like three minutes. Ashesh took pictures, and captured some especially memorable moments with his camera.

Hari Sharan Nepali is not a new name for the Nepali environmentalist. (Although he was born into a traditional Newar community, he doesn’t believe in caste and wrote Nepali as his last name to set an example that all Nepalese are equal.)   Currently the foremost ornithologist in the country, he was born in Chhetrapati, Kathmandu, in 1934.  His father was a music tutor to members of the Rana family. Hari Sharan, who is also popularly known as ‘Kazi Dai’, received his basic education from Durbar High School. He did not even complete his secondary education, but a PhD holder cannot compete with his knowledge of birds.

Hari Sharan began his early lessons in bird watching at the beginning of his teens, when he used to accompany his father on hunting trips. He made friends with these feathered beings, and they have never ceased to inspire him to do more for conservation. Often he neglected his school examinations to go to the jungle and his elders at home always scolded him, but they couldn’t stop his increasing interest in birds.  Fifty years of self-study about Nepalese birds has made him familiar with most of the bird species of the country. He has already visited almost all the Nepalese forests. “I’m not afraid of the wild animals. I generally spend 8 or 9 months a year in the jungle, and I think of it as my own home.” he says.  His stay in the jungles from the far eastern to the far western regions of Nepal, combined with his devotion to birds, allowed Hari Sharan to identify and publicize 860 species of birds found in the country.  In doing so, he established new research methods and provided more extensive and more accurate information.  He contributed his lifetime collection of about 875 specimins, containing 575 different species, to the Tribhuvan University to be used for research and study. This collection is currently housed in TU’s Natural History Museum.

Hari Sharan is personally credited with discovering 13 new species, including the Tibet Owlet which he spotted in Dolpa and three snow finch species (Rufus-necked, Brand’s and Mandl’s), which he spotted and recorded on a single day during a bird-watching trip in northeast Mustang. Others include the black-tailed godwid and the booted warbler, both of which were thought to be extinct.

It was in 1952 that Hari Sharan started his official research by observing birds in the wild and taking notes of migration patterns, behavior, and plumage characteristics. He began a systematic record keeping of observations in 1955.  Hari Sharan collected and preserved his first bird specimen in 1956. He was also a co-researcher with Dr. R.L. Fleming in a work named ‘Survey of Nepal’ in 1964. He continued his work as a co-researcher with C.O. Messer in the ‘Ornithological Survey of Nepal’, conducted by the Chicago (U.S.A.) Natural History Museum in 1966. He was later involved as a co-researcher in a project entitled ‘Bio- geographic Study of the Eastern Himalayas’ in 1980 and in another project entitled ‘Socio-ecological Studies of Macaques in Nepal’ in 1984. In the same year, he worked as an ornithologist in a research expedition entitled ‘Nepal Tree Bear’ in the Barun Valley, and continued to work in various other projects sponsored by the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, Makalu Barun Conservation Project, IUCN/Nepal and HMG/DGIS, Royal Nepal Academy and CREST.

Hari Sharan has also written many articles on field research. His reports on the tree frog and Goldfinch were published in the Newsletter of Nepal Nature Conservation Society in 1972. He also informed the world about Nepalese birds by writing articles in magazines from several countries.  In 1972, his article titled ‘Some birds from Nepal’ was published in the Bombay Natural History Society magazine. Similarly, a magazine from Bangkok, ‘Wild is Beautiful’, published his article, ‘Birds’ Migration’, in 1981.  He also contributed writings to the ‘Scientific Report on 1989 Field Survey General and Photo-Ecology’ and ‘Aspects of Wildlife Protection and Utilization in the Makalu-Barun Conservation Area’ supported by Makalu Barun Conservation Project in 1990.

Hari Sharan was in-charge of the fauna collection at the Zoology Department of Tribhuvan University from 1971 to 1974. From 1975 to 1978 he worked in a post similar to a Lecturer at TU’s Natural History Museum. He is also the founder-president of Bird Conservation Nepal, which is supported by 10 patrons, over 60 life members and more than 900 ordinary members.

In 1981, he became a member of the National Committee of the International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN), focusing on education. The following year, he served as a representative from Nepal to the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP), UK. He was also a member of Oriental Birds Club, Bedfordshire, UK and a member of the Environment Protection Council, HMG, Nepal.

Hari Sharan was also honored with many prizes and decorations for his lifelong contribution to research on the birds of Nepal. In 1984 he was awarded first prize in the ‘Open National Exhibition on Scientific and Technological Application and Discoveries’, organized by the Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (RONAST), for his publication on ‘Atypical Birds and Wild Animals’. He was decorated with the ‘Prabal Gorkha Dakshin Bahu’ on the occasion of the 41st birthday of His Majesty, the late King Birendra.  He was also awarded a letter of appreciation by His Majesty King Gyanendra for his outstanding representation of Nepal in an international seminar in Kathmandu in September 2000.

 Now 70 years old, Hari Sharan is enjoying his retired life.  But he is thinking about writing a book that covers his lifetime work in bird research. More currently, he is planning to publish a collection of writings about memorable experiences in his field research.

The truth is, Hari Sharan Nepali’s work and achievements cannot be represented in a few words, or even a few pages. The man sets an example for dedication towards birds and their conservation. He is honored and respected for his work and has achieved much so far. Charming and good-natured, with a pleasant, bright, unwrinkled face,  Harisharan says, with a smile, “My life is the study of birds and birds are my close friends; they are my happiness; they are my satisfaction. I will be playing with them till the end of my life.”

By his own efforts and through his persistent research, inexhaustible patience and his own particular genius, he has made himself a learned man, and the most successful ornithologist of the country.  Not done yet, he still seems to have constant enthusiasm to do more for his country and society, and this remarkable man will probably continue to do so for a while yet.