It is the season for bird-watching once more as Nepal becomes the transit point for millions of birds travelling south for the winter.
The bar-headed geese are honking their way in arrow-shaped formations down the Kali Gandaki this week. The ducks come by the hundreds of thousands to land in the backwaters of the Kosi Tappu sanctuary in eastern Nepal, and others make brief stopovers in wetlands and take off again for India, Africa or southeast Asia.
The Kosi Tappu Wildlife Reserve is regarded as one of Asia's most significant sites not just for migratory water birds but also birdwatchers from all over the world. Kathmandu Valley is also blessed with two famous bird hills on its rim: Shivapuri and Pulchoki which host up to 300 species of birds in their vicinity.
But habitat destruction and draining of wetlands, not just in Nepal but also along the migratory routes is endangering these birds.
Twenty years ago, over 50,000 birds were sighted here at Kosi Tappu in one day. Last year, the Annual Waterbird Count noticed that the daily number was down by 9,800 birds. "It was a sharp drop, and it looks like wetland habitats are under severe threat due to overfishing, animal grazing and farm encroachment," says ornithologist Hem Raj Baral of Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN).
Besides Kosi Tappu, ornithologists have also noticed a dramatic drop in the population of water birds in the rivers and ponds of Royal Chitwan National Park. "Waste water from Bharatpur, Narayanghat and the Bhrikuti Paper Mill pollute the Narayani poisoning the fish and then the birds," adds Baral. Pokhara's famous lakes are also a favourite spot for migratory and indigenous birds. But siltation, encroachment and pollution have taken their toll in recent years.
Besides water bodies, bird habitats in tarai grasslands are also threatened. Nepal is home to eight percent of the world's bird species with 861 species recorded here. Of these, 133 species are under threat and 73 fall under the critically threatened category. Most of this is due to the destruction of forests and grasslands and contamination of water bodies.
The white-rumped vulture, slender-billed vulture, Bengal florican, swamp francolin, lesser adjutant, grey-crowned prinia and sarus crane are some of the threatened species in the tarai.
"The bird population declines when there aren't many suitable habitats to breed in. During mating, males need enough grasslands to flaunt themselves and attract females, failing which they won't breed," explains Sarala Khaling from World Wildlife Fund for Nature Conservation (WWF) Nepal.
According to the newly-published The State of Nepal Birds 2004 by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and BCN, the species most at threat are those categorised as 'specialist birds' with special habitat needs. Among them are: the pale-headed woodpecker, coral-billed scimitar babbler, fulvous parrotbill and the golden-breasted fulvetta which survive mainly on bamboo groves. The great hornbill and great slaty woodpecker require mature trees for feeding and nesting. As trees and bamboos vanish, so do the birds.
Khaling says conservation of birds is given secondary importance to flagship species like tigers, rhinos and elephants. Only a few organisations focus on bird conservation in Nepal and ornithologists are frustrated with the lack of interest among the government and donors in protecting birds.
"They think that giving funds for protected areas will conserve birds. Most birds are actually dying and nearing extinction outside the national parks," says ornithologist Tika Giri. Vultures across South Asia, including the Nepal tarai, for instance, are near extinction because they ingest a veterinarian drug called diclofenac from livestock carcasses. (See 'No more circling' Nepali Times, #185)
The Bengal florican, doesn't exist anymore outside protected areas. There used to be an estimated 5,682 Bengal floricans till a few decades ago, now they are down to less than 100 in the four national parks.
A native of Chitwan, Giri has sighted over 800 species in the 20 years he has been involved in bird conservation. He believes the only way to save our birds is by telling people about them. "People are not indifferent to birds, they just don't know how they are responsible for their disappearance," says Giri, who blames modern farming methods that promote pesticides and agrochemicals.
Pesticides are responsible for endangering at least 20 species, mainly birds of prey, large wading birds and storks.
Says conservationist Sagendra Tiwari from IUCN: "Farmers know the role of birds in balancing the ecosystem. What they don't know is how pesticides and fertilisers affect them."
Bird Conservation Nepal
(See also 'Bird Country', Nepali Times #133)