During the 1970s, the Tufted Pochard, a duck with black and white plumage, was a common sight in the Kathmandu valley. The bird was last spotted in Kamal Pokhari in 1978 before the species completely disappeared from the capital.
The bird, rare even then, is sometimes spotted in the Taudaha (Lake) to the south of the Valley.
Kathmandu was once a heavenly habitat for many such wetland birds.
More than a thousand migrant aquatic birds like Ruddy Shelduck, Shoveler, Eurasian birds like Wigeon and Kingfishers used to come to Taudaha from Tibet, China,
Mongolia, and Siberia during winter. But over the last six years, the number has gone down to 350.
Nepal is rich in bird diversity, with 871 species being recorded, which is about 8% of the total bird species found worldwide. According to Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN), a total of 534 species of birds has been recorded in the Kathmandu Valley alone.
Among them, 133 or 15% are considered nationally threatened. Loss and damage of habitats is causing major threats to 89% of the birds which are already at risk.
Vimal Thapa, member of the Rare Bird Committee of BCN and an avid bird watcher, says that factors like environmental degradation, rampant growth of infrastructure and human disturbance have contributed to the disappearance of wildlife in the Valley.
The rising number of hotels around the Taudaha area and the poor quality of water due to human settlements has forced the birds to perish. Illegal hunting and the issue of global climate change have furthermore aggravated the problems.
Bird ecologist Rajendra Suwal recalls the time some fifty years back when Kathmandu was less populated with lots of organic farmlands, wetlands, swamps, and marshes. The surrounding hills had better forest coverage. But gradually farmlands were replaced by rapid urbanization.
Red vented Bulbul
“The trend of keeping small holes on the rooftops of houses for birds to make nests was also a common trend. This was like an unwritten law, considered to be a traditional belief to live in harmony with nature which many people followed. This trend invited lots of birds to nest on houses. But today’s house structures aren’t bird friendly,” says Suwal.
City-based ardent bird watcher Suwal informs that large birds like White-Necked Stork, which lives in forest trees but feeds on wetlands and marshy areas, were easily spotted in Chapagaun, Nag Daha and Manahara River.
Demoiselle Crane and Common Crane were found near Chobar, and the Cormorant was found in Rani Pokhari until the 1980s.
With abundant ponds in places like Gongabu and Balaju, ducks like the Bar Headed Geese that bred in Tibet, rested in Kathmandu before flying to the south. They also became the victims of illegal hunting and were last seen in the 1980s.
The Kathmandu Valley was a common point to stop over for many migrant birds. The Demoiselle Crane which was last spotted in Tundikhel in 1974 came from Siberia and flew over to India.
Similarly, over the years, birds like the White-Necked Stork, Bar-Headed Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Grey Heron also disappeared from the Valley. The Pink-Headed Duck was last since in 1846 before it got extinct.
Suwal adds that about forty years ago, White-Rumped vulture, Long-Billed Vulture and Slender-Billed Vulture used to roost in the Kathmandu valley but they cannot be spotted anymore as they are on the verge of getting extinct from the world itself. Scarcity of food is one of the major reasons behind the disappearance of these scavengers.
“Municipalities back then got rid of stray dogs by using poison and disposed of them on the banks of Bishnumati and Bagmati Rivers. Those vultures, which used to feed on their carcasses, also died as a result. This trend went on for many years. The number of cows which the vultures used to feed on also decreased, and with it the food supply got limited which lessened the number of the vultures,” informs Suwal.
He further stresses that the traditional system of farming, using local composting, was replaced by chemical fertilizers, leading to loss of organic farmlands. This led to a stark change as some of the birds that depended on the wetlands and farmlands also disappeared.
Nepal’s only endemic bird, the Spiny Babbler which is found only in the country, is also declining. “Some 30 years ago, during bird-watching in the forests of Shivapuri, Nagarjun, Godavari, Chapagaun and Nagarkot, we heard and saw them frequently. But of late, we don’t see them that often,” says Suwal.
Apart from those species, Barn Owls, garden and singing birds like Red-Vented Bulbul and Magpie Robin are also declining. He mentions that it was the hunting trend from the 60s to the 80s that led to the disappearance of birds. Loss of habitat and human interference further deteriorated the situation.
Besides birds, he also mentions that jackals, otters and even snakes are growing less in number. The Kathmandu Valley, once known as Serpent Lake (Nag Daha), has seen the decline in the number of snakes as well.
Though lots of wetland birds were lost, forest birds like the White-Breasted Waterhen are, however, seen more often. Spotted and Emerald Doves are also found in the surrounding hills of Nagarjun whereas birds like Baya Weaver and Peregrine Falcon are gettin rare.
Bird ecologist Suwal further mentions that back then, city planners had set aside 32 religious forests in the Kathmandu Valley which maintained the natural habitats for wildlife.
“But now, during city planning process, a separate area isn’t being earmarked for wildlife. There also used to be lots of ponds and lakes in the Valley. But in the name of development, we started losing such public areas,” says Suwal.
The Nepal Government and BCN are striving to revive the Long-Billed Vultures by raising them in captivity in Chitwan. Suwal laments that though the Department of National Parks has set aside areas for wildlife protection, the Kathmandu Valley, however, is not given much attention.
“In our town planning, we still don’t have agendas to build breathing spaces. This is why wildlife is disappearing gradually from the city.”
Jyotendra Thakur, Conservation Officer of BCN, however, thinks that private sectors and government need better coordination in order to protect wildlife.
“The birds on the list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) were found in the suburban areas of the Valley but they aren’t seen anymore,” he adds.
As per Kumal Jung Kunwar, spokesperson at the Department of National Parks, in the case of the Valley, its animals aren’t so much at risk of getting endangered as compared to the animals found in National Parks and Wildlife Reserves outside the Valley.
Narendra Pradhan, Conservation Biologist at WWF Nepal, informs that the organization so far has not carried out any studies on the wildlife of the Kathmandu Valley.
“We usually study the endangered species from outside the Valley as that is on the main priority list. We’re currently researching on the wildlife of the National Parks in the Tarai.” He adds that lack of proper funds and resources is another factor for the lack of wildlife study in the Valley.
“But I think it’s important to study the biodiversity of the Kathmandu Valley as well, so that we can work on protecting various species.”
Bird ecologist Suwal says that even at household levels, we can contribute to ensure the protection of birds. Firstly, by raising awareness on how we can stop disturbing their habitats.
We can also place water and birdbaths on terraces and rooftops for birds to drink and bathe and put up nest boxes and build gardens with greenery as well.
In order to balance the ecosystem, birds are vital since they eat worms, insects and even help protect the grains on farmlands. To maintain the food chain and sustain the ecosystem, we must preserve them, he says.