Bird Conservation Nepal: From Bird Watching to Watching Over Birds

Happening Issue 88 Jul, 2010
Text by Kapil Bisht

These are trying times for anything that walks on four legs, has a tail, or flies. And not having a voice hurts (humans are not listening anyway). This is the predicament animals are facing as the ‘superior beings’ grow, usually at their expense. The thud of the axe against the tree trunk, the sight of a smooth table in our living rooms and the smell of the ripening crop, sprayed with pesticide, are as far as human ears seem to be listening or noses smelling. The nests at the top of trees are not seen and the smell of decaying birds poisoned by the pesticide are lost amidst the crop-smell.

Fortunately, some people have looked into the wild beyond the limits of their houses, and decided that these creatures need to be heard. In 1967 Karna Shakya, a young wildlife officer in Nepal’s Department of Forestry was assigned to survey the forest area of Chitwan for demarcation of what later became Chitwan National Park. Later he was assigned to explor the country’s floral and faunal wealth, accompanied by a friend, John Blower, and Bob Fleming, a renowned ornithologist. By working with Fleming he became interested in bird watching. It became a passion that led to a lifelong dedication to the conservation of birds.

In the early 1970s, Karna Shakya resigned from he government and opened the popular Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel. There he often received inquiries about the birds of Nepal. At first he suggested foreign ornithologists to guide those who wanted to see birds, but in 1976 he joined up with Hari Sharan ‘Kazi’ Nepali to establish the Nepal Bird Watching Club.

The club started small, attracting a few Nepali and foreign birders and a few students. They participated in weekend bird walks around the valley, and conducted an annual Christmas and New Years bird count. Later, they also took up bird banding.

In 1982 the Nepal Bird Watching Club became Bird Conservation Nepal. The BCN began with a commitment to enhance the knowledge of birds among the people. It works towards preserving bird habitat, to assure avian well-being and survival. Ornithology has made great advances and BCN keeps abreast through research on bird biology and ecology as a cornerstone of its mission to protect the avifauna of Nepal.

Humans are the biggest threat to birds, so BCN seeks to educate the people at large about birds and the consequences of human activities on them. The majority of the organization’s activities and programs are focused on young people, with regular bird watching programs for school children. These trips serve a dual purpose – recreation through bird watching and the inculcation of the spirit of conservation. There are also quiz contests, painting competitions and other school activities centered around bird and habitat conservation.

The celebrations of Wildlife Week, World Environment Day and World Wetland Day are also organized and supported by BCN each year. The annual Koshi Tappu Bird Festival is also one of their activities. Exhibitions and street programs highlighting the avifaunal diversity of Nepal are regular features in BCN’s goal of awareness-raising and promotion of bird conservation. BCN also regularly conducts bird identification training in and around the Kathmandu Valley. The result is a new generation of dedicated Nepalese ornithologists.

Through its newsletters and other publications BCN disseminates updates on the status of globally threatened bird species, especially those of Nepal. Frequent ornithological and biodiversity surveys are conducted in Nepal’s 27 ‘IBAs’ (Important Bird Areas).

To date, the BCN has published bird checklists of protected areas such as Shivapuri and Koshi Tappu, as well as The State of Nepal’s Birds, Birds of Nepal and Important Bird Areas of Nepal. It also publishes two quarterly newsletters, Danphe (English) and Munal (Hindi) and a radio program called Panchi Sansar that airs twice a month on Image FM (97.9 MHz).

The Participatory Conservation of Phulchowki Mountain Forest is one of BCN’s attempts to assimilate people and wildlife. BCN believes that the forest of Phulchowki hold great potential, not only for its flora and fauna, but in terms of the possibility of becoming a center for conservation training and education. BCN wants to involve the Forest User Groups (FUGs) and the students from the Kathmandu Valley in the conservation efforts. This project, funded by the Whitley Fund for Nature, seeks alternatives to the exploitation of forests for livelihood. Income-generating skills training is given to groups of housewives and unemployed youth. The development of the Phulchowki area as an eco-tourism location is one of the project objectives. For this to happen, sustainable use of resources is encouraged through community management of the forests, and regular school trips are organized to spread the message of conservation among children.

In 2000, seeing the alarming decline of various species of Asian vultures, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (the IUCN, or World Conservation Union) listed three species of vultures as critically endangered. BCN’s response was the start of a Vulture Conservation Program funded by the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Zoological Society of London. This program conducts research, surveys, and various innovative programs. A vulture survey along Nepal’s east-west highway revealed that the chief contributor to the decline in vulture population was the veterinary drug Diclofenac. BCN then carried out a program to replace Diclofenac in veterinary shops with Meloxicam, which has no adverse effect on vultures.

BCN members also came up with the idea of a community-run vulture restaurant called Jatayu, which provide safe food for vultures. Community-run Jatayu restaurants now exist at several Terai and Inner Terai locations. The result is an increase in vulture populations. The BCN has also teamed up with Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and the National Trust for Nature Conservation to establish a Vulture Conservation and Breeding Center in Kasara, Chitwan, and a vulture feeding center in Kailali District.

The organization’s concern for birds is also focused on preserving urban bird habitats. With the Nepal Government and the UN Park Development Committee, the BCN now manages the 30 hectare Bagmati River Nature Park in the heart of Kathmandu. There they have planted various species of vegetation to create a habitat conducive for bird breeding, and for the passage of migrant species. Regulars visits by school children are organized, and the children are engaged in cleaning and planting activities. There are plans for constructing a reed bed to stem the flow of effluents directly into the river. Numerous dustbins have been placed for waste disposal, and plaques with Nepali and scientific names have been placed in the nature park to help visitors identify the various floral species. BCN also runs a Environmental Education and Information Centre for Students of Kathmandu Valley in the park.

BCN is involved in the Sustainable Wetland Management for Wildlife and People in the Buffer Zone of Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, a project funded by the UK’s Darwin Initiative with Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. This project aims to assist the people living around the reserve to manage in a sustainable manner the wetlands that lie outside of the reserve. The project teaches skills and expertise to the local people in order to minimize pressure on the Koshi Tappu Reserve. A similar project is being pursued by the BCN around Jagdishpur lake at Lumbini, in coordination with the government and local conservation groups. This project enables community members to pursue livelihoods in a sustainable manner, while observing sound conservation practices.

BCN is also actively involved in the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund project being implemented in the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area and the Mai Valley Forests of northeastern Nepal. This project is designed to strengthen community organizations and the local population’s knowledge of biodiversity and environment protection.

Bird Conservation Nepal has come a long ways from being a bird club of a few enthusiasts and weekend outings. It is the oldest, and now the largest, civil society organization in the country. More importantly, it is Nepal’s pre-eminent organization for the protection of birds. Bird conservation is tedious work; the threats usually outweigh the efforts. But, the BCN is doing all it can to ensure that birds survive and stay in their rightful place, in the wild. With a little consideration from those of us who rely on and enjoy birds, they will succeed.