Kaji Dai, Nepal's Birdman

People Issue 207 Feb, 2019
Text by Pooja Gurung

Nepal, home to over than 800 species of birds, is unquestionably a bird watcher’s paradise. Many of these can be spotted even in the larger cities, though with the rapid increase in population, sadly much of the avian habitat is being destroyed, pushing these beautiful flying creatures farther and farther away.

“There are so many beautiful birds on view, and I always had a tremendous yearning to be outside looking at them,” says HariSharan Nepali, known as “Kaji dai” to those who know him well. Only a very few people are able to turn their passion into a profession, and Kajidai discovered that life-long passion at an early age and wanted to devote all his life to birds when he was just thirteen. He is the first and amongst the most well-known ornithologists of Nepal, though his studies mostly took place outside the classroom. “I never paid attention to my teachers, but when it came to the jungles, I was all ears to the twitters and chirpings of birds.”

“When I was young, I remember my friends used to go around Ason and Indra chowk and play there. However, I was always fascinated by birds; the way they sang their songs, their vibrant colors, flight patterns—everything made me feel amazed. While my friends used to go around the city, I used to sneak my way into the Shivapuri forest and Phulchowki to find new birds. Kathmandu was a different place then—clean rivers, clean city, less pollutants. You won’t believe me, but the city was so green those days that there was no need to even go all the way to Shivapuri or any faraway places to search for birds. You could see a lot of birds within the city.”

During winter, when migratory birds gathered around the riverside at Bishnumati, Chobar, or Tokha, he used to go with his friends to study birds. While they swam and fished, Kaji used to silently watch the birds. He never bothered to get into college, nor did any college offer the course he wanted to study. The only school Kaji regularly attended was nature’s school, and the only lectures he ever paid attention to were the cries of various birds. I shared my experience of bird watching with him when I was in Godavari. I explained and made a sound (kinda embarassingly) of the bird I had heard. Oh, let me tell you this, with just my feeble explanation, he could tell the order, family, and species of birds found in in that place.

When as a teenager wandering in the forests, he didn’t have even the slightest idea that one day his passion would be a lifelong profession. Kaji dai started to collect bird specimensofbirds found in Nepal from 1952. In 1955, he organized an exhibition of stuffed birds along with a friend during King Mahendra’s coronation. “We did have a large enough collection of birds, but did not have enough information on many birds. When we inquired from the shopkeeper of the Ratna Pustak Bhandar for books on birds, we became a subject of mockery. It’s no surprise that people used to think that we were crazy—a book on birds!” shares Kaji dai. “After that experience, I was determined to take my research and specimen collection seriously.”

He has his own collection of specimens, which is now in the Natural History of Museum at Chauni. It was around 1975 that he collected enough specimens of his own and gathered all the required information about them to be able to put on a solo exhibition of stuffed birds.

Kajidai seemed very excited and his face glowed when he was sharing about his experience. Moving on with more stories, he tells me, “I was invited by the then president of Hyatt Hotel, Tom Pritzker, to visit the U.S.A. He wanted me to guide him on an expedition in Nepal; which I did. He was impressed, and in return,he offered to be my guide in the U.S. and made all arrangements for my visit. The first thing that I wanted to see in the cities were the museums.” Before his visit to the U.S., Kaji dai had also guided the former U.S. president,Jimmy Carter, when he was in Nepal. They went to Shivapuri for bird-watching. “Later, when I was in the U.S., I got to visit the White House. And at that time, Carter was the president. When he was in Nepal, he had signed in a visitors’ card and was amused when I showed him that card.”

In his quest to record the birds found in Nepal, Kajidai trekked the full length of the country, from Mechi to Mahakali, three times. Now, can you imagine the number of specimens he has collected? Seven hundred specimens out of the total 875 species of birds found in Nepal! There are many incidents etched in his memory of the times when he wandered with a determination to record bird species. His eyes sparkle as he reminisces about his wanderings. “I always look for an opportunity to go to different places in search of new birds. For short excursions, I used to go to Shivapuri and Godavari, and for long expeditions, I went to Gosainkunda and Langtang.” Traveling is definitely fun; you get to see new places and birds, but sometimes it’s not always fun. “I had my own share of ups and downs while traveling; sometimes it was a close encounter with death.”

“I had a quite a funny experience when I ran out of supplies when I was out on an excursion to Langtang. I had a cook and two porters assisting me on that trip. I had to send three of them back to Kathmandu to get supplies. And, when they were gone, I made thin pancakes. I didn’t want to take any chances, and I’d make such thin pancakes for survival. After three days, my cook returned, and I inquired how much further away were the porters. ‘The porters ran away with our supplies,’ he said,” Kaji dai remembered with mellow laughter. “And I had to cancel that trip,” he says as sits back holding a warm cup of tea. Nostalgia.

Among just some of his many contributions in the field of wildlife and nature conservation, his reports on the tree frog and goldfinch were published in the Newsletter of Nepal, Nature Conservation Society, in 1972. His writing on Nepali birds has also been published internationally over the years; in 1972, his article “Some birds from Nepal” was published in the Bombay Natural History Society magazine. A magazine from Bangkok, Wild is Beautiful, published his article, “Birds Migration,” in 1981. He also contributed his writing 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.

Kaji dai was also in-charge of the fauna collection at the Zoology Department of Tribhuvan University from 1971 to 1974. From 1985 to 1978, he worked in a similar post to a lecturer at TU’s Natural History Museum. He is also the founder-president of Bird Conservation Nepal. In 1981, he served as a representative from Nepal to the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP), U.K., and is a member of the Environment Protection Council, Nepal. He has also been honored with many prizes for his lifelong contribution to research on the birds of Nepal. In 1984,he was awarded first place in the “Open National Exhibition on Scientific and Technological Application and Discoveries,” organized by the Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (RONAST). He was also awarded with the Prabal Gorkha Dakshin Bahu on the occasion of the 41st birthday of His Majesty, the late King BIrendra.

Now almost 90 years old, Kaji dai is enjoying his life. Currently, he is collecting all the articles he has written over the years and is looking forward to publishing a book, which will be about his memorable experiences and definitely cover his lifetime work in bird research. Honestly, even at his age, he is as active as a young man. And, most importantly, he has definitely set the bar in the field of bird observation and study. He is an example of dedication towards birds and their conservation.

With a pleasant and bright smile on his charming, wrinkled face, Kaji dai says with pride, “My life is the study of birds. They have been my close friends, they are my happiness. I still look at the birds that come around my terrace. They remind me of my memories.” Self taught, committed by his nature of not giving up, with undeniable patience and many achievements, he has established himself as one of the most successful ornithologists of the country.