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Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve Munir Virani in Koshi Camp, Nepal
Munir Virani — in Asian Vulture Crisis    Share
Only those scientists working on the Asian Vulture Crisis project in south Asia know how many chickens have been "sacrificed" in order to save the vultures from extinction.  At this moment, I am in Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve in lowland Nepal with local biologist Jeet Bahadur Giri (aka JB) and his assistants Badri and Chakra.  We are watching nest number five, one of only two Slender-billed Vulture nests built high up a Kapok tree.  Our lunch comprises of fried chicken (our dinner the previous night was chicken curry and this evening we have been promised a special Nepali chicken treat!!).  In the distance, a small herd of Indian Wild Buffalo glares at us nervously, while the enchanting cry of a Crested Serpent Eagle alerts us of impending perils in this magnificent riverine forest. 

I arrived here three days ago from Kathmandu. Before landing at Koshi, I was treated to spectacular views of the Himalayan Range with Mount Everest staring me in the face.  I was literally "on top of the world."  Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve is without a doubt, one of the finest birding sites in Asia.  It was established as a wildlife reserve in 1976 with the aim to protect the last remaining population of the Asiatic Wild Buffaloes in Nepal.  The reserve covers an area of 175 square km and includes habitats such as wetlands, grasslands and riverine forest.  The reserve is the only Ramsar site (a wetland of international significance) in Nepal.  More than half of Nepals birds are recorded here. Among the mammals, besides the wild buffalo, the elusive Gangetic dolphin and fishing cat are also occasionally seen.

Our drive to Koshi Camp takes about two hours as we meander through golden wheat fields, rice paddies, and captivating architecture.  We finally arrive at the camp in time for lunch. The camp is centrally located on the reserves eastern edge, with stunning views of the wetlands and its incredible flora and fauna.  JB informs us that on a clear day we may be lucky to see the world's fifth highest mountain "Makalu" from our tent.  JB and I sit down for lunch (roast chicken!!!!) and discuss our plan of action for the next few days.

Indian White-backed and Long-billed Vultures <br />perform an essential ecological role by <br />cleaning carcasses.
Indian White-backed and Long-billed Vultures 
perform an essential ecological role by 
cleaning carcasses.

Contrary to our assumption, the majority of vultures nested outside the reserve.  The reserves riverine forest is home to at least 30 immature Himalayan Vultures that over-winter here.  JB located six nests inside the reserve - two Slender-billed Vulture nests, two White-backed Vulture nests, and two that have been abandoned.  Getting to these nests was no easy task.  We are up at 5:00 am and ready to leave for Prakashpur (a nearby village) where we float down the Koshi River on an inflatable raft.  The experience can only be described as magical.  Hundreds of migratory birds can still be seen.  For raptor enthusiasts, this is paradise—Crested Serpent Eagles, White-eyed Buzzards, Pied Harriers, Shaheen Falcons, Bonnellis Eagles, Black Vultures, Jungle Owlet, Rufous-thighed Falconet, and Honey Buzzards.  After two hours of rafting down the river, we moor the raft on a sand bar and begin our trek through the riverine forest.

In October, the grasses are over 20 feet high, but during December, villagers are allowed to cut the grasses for thatching material and so we can see our way around the forest. We get off the raft and prepare for our walk. I watch JB intently as he pulls out a huge knife from his bag pack and slots it in a belt around his waist. 

"What's that for?" I ask curiously. 

"For buffalo and for snakes," he answers without making eye contact.  "Also be careful of quicksand. . . very easy to sink in. . . many buffalo die in quicksand." 

It takes us an hour to reach our first nest and JB sets up the telescope where a nine-week-old White-backed Vulture chick is happily flapping up and down its nest, under the watchful eye of a nervous parent.  JB quietly records the status of the nest, walks around to search for dead vultures and then signals to move on towards the next nest. 

It takes us another half-hour to get to the next nest.  This is a Slender-billed Vulture (formerly known as a sub-species of the Long-billed Vulture) nest, one of only two nests in the entire region.  There is a priceless chick in it.  Happy that the chick showed some movement, JB once again signals to move on.  

We pass through the open sandy beaches where at least 50 wild buffalo are resting.  One bull gets up and glares at us as if to charge.  Each horn is over two and a half feet, and the animal weighs close to two tons.  The heat is intense and ground scorching. 

"It takes a full day just to monitor these nests on the reserve" explains JB.  "Sometimes if buffalo are on the way, I have to go back."

We pass through another forest patch and come across nest number three. 

"Dead exclaims JB." 

Sure enough, on a nest high up a Kapok tree lies a dead adult White-backed Vulture with its wings spread apart as if to shade its chick.  We climb up the nest tree and bring down the dead vulture.  It has been dead for about nine days and completely covered with maggots.  The insides have been eaten and very little remains that is worth conducting a necropsy.  The nest contains no egg or chick.  Heavy wing beats bring our eyes towards the sky as we see another White-backed Vulture fly over our heads.  A bereaving mate perhaps?  We stand in silence peering at the dead vulture.  How many times have I seen this sight?  Dead vultures in nests, on the ground, and hanging on tree branches all over India, Nepal, and Pakistan.

After monitoring all the nests on the reserve, we make our way back towards the raft, passing nests of Asian Spoonbills and the illustrious Black-necked Stork.  The sun is about to go down - a full glowing red fire ball.  As we get off the raft, there are more than 30 children on the beach, aged between eight and 14, carrying heavy sacks of sand on their heads.  They then make over 250 trips across the river channel to deliver the sandbags to another child who will use it for construction.  Each sack weighs about 30 kg (over 60 ponds).  JB explains that the kids are helping to build and reinforce a sandbank.  This area suffers from devastating floods and they are preparing foe the monsoon season that lies ahead.  As we load the raft onto our jeep and head back to camp at sunset, I am silent and ponder over the fate of the people in this beautiful part of Nepal.

Find more articles about Long-billed Vulture, Slender-billed Vulture, White-backed Vulture, Asia-Pacific

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