The birds haven't let us down this year. Nepal's best wetlands and biggest man-made reservoir are teeming with bird life, unlike the stricken tourism industry. Thousands of birds, from as far as Siberia and Spain, have flocked to the Kosi Tappu Wildlife Reserve to winter and breed in the 175 sq km expanse of riverine forest and wetlands.
Set up in 1976 to protect the Arna- the rare wild water buffalo-Kosi Tappu also shelters an astonishing 420 bird species, both migratory and resident, 514 plant species, and the endangered Gangetic dolphin in the lower reaches. Running north of the Kosi barrage on the Nepal-India border in eastern Nepal, this area was recognised as a wetland in 1987, after the reservior formed by the barrage across the Sapta Kosi became a favourite haunt for birds.
The Arna is still endangered. This year's official park census records 146 pure-bred, and 101 crossed between the local semi-wild cows and the wild buffalo. Of the pure-bred, there are 57 male, 53 female, 17 under one year-old, and 19 between one and two years old. The count was carried out on by specialists who can differentiate between pure and hybrid buffalos. "The task is difficult, but for eyes long trained on the species, it's only a matter of time," claims Basudev Aryal, ranger of the Park.
The same goes for bird watching. Ornithologists get excited about looking for rare species, but a first birding trip to Kosi Tappu is a bit much for amateur birdwatchers. By the end of the day, repetitive sightings and an overload of Latin and common names can have you in a flap. Naturalists sighted more than 35,000 ducks of 20 different species in 1999-teals, pochards, bar headed geese, grebes and others. The wetlands are also a paradise for egrets, storks, cormorants, kingfishers, water cocks, snipes, sandpipers, jacanas, cranes, terns, and herons.
Wake-up calls come early in the three camps located in the villages outside the Kosi Tappu Wildlife Reserve. Eager bird watchers head for the Sapta Kosi, from where wooden or inflatable rafts take them across the river to the park border. If you are planning an independent trip, be sure to have company and camping equipment to pitch camp beside the park office outside the boundary. A trip down the river is full of sighting possibilities. If you are on a package tour offered by the resorts, a naturalist-guide will tell you about the species. You can also get off the raft at places to take a short walk into the not-too-dense scrub and jungle. The only dangers are the aggressive Arna, the Ghariyal, and the rare Python. It's wise to follow the guides on forest fashion-bright colours are not for the jungle, wear browns and greens that merge with the bush. And never venture into the forest alone.
The Reserve is a popular day-trip for noisy picnickers from Dharan, Biratnagar, Inaruw and Lahan. But, they're more likely to scare our feathered friends than take the time to observe them. The reserve is easily accessible: a 45-minute flight from Kathmandu to Biratnagar, then a one-and-a-half hour drive north gets you to the park. Travelling overland is equally exciting-the drive along the East-West Highway highlights the contrast between the mountains and mid-hills, and the plains. If you are at Chitwan National Park, Kosi Tappu is only a six-hour drive east. The river route is strictly for tough whitewater rafters who arrive here after a gruelling 8-10 days down the Sun Kosi. Three resorts offer the only tourist-standard accommodation in the area. Not too many tourists make their way here on their own, so the resorts only offer package deals.
But this ecosystem is in peril through rampant poaching. Down south, where the park area adjoins the Indian border, both Nepalis and Biharis trap birds. Some hunters wear a pot on their head, with small holes for the eyes, and glide slowly across the waters to catch surprised ducks and geese. The birds end up at border restaurants and other Indian hotels. In the nearby Indian village of Birpur and the Nepali town of Bhantabari, there are signs that read: 'Birds from Nepal sold here'. "Many rare species have already been wiped out that way," says Sambhu Karki, a naturalist.
But it is not really the number of birds that has entrepreneurs and promoters worried these days. It's the sudden hike in fees for activities related to Koshi Tappu. As per the new rates a wooden raft has to pay Rs 500 (earlier free), a synthetic raft Rs 1000 (earlier free), and the boatman Rs 100 (up from Rs 10). For foreigners, entry into the Reserve is Rs 500 (up from Rs 310), Nepalis Rs 100 (up from Rs 20) per day. The charges for vehicles are also up from the earlier flat rate of Rs 100-now you pay Rs 1000 for vehicles with four passenegers, Rs 2,000 for jeeps and Rs 2,500 for bigger vans. (The last one at least has dissuaded raucous picknickers.) "With few tourists and such high fees we might be compelled to close," says Saroj Karki, manager of Koshi Tappu Wildlife Camp in Prakashpur.
The villagers too are troubled. "Our village has benefitted because businesses employed our youth, and constructed schools for us," says Nayan Adhikary, a primary school teacher at Prakashpur, pointing to three school buildings built by tourism entrepreneur Bharat Basnet who owns one of the three resorts.
Park ranger Basudev Aryal has the last word: "This place was never meant to be open for tourist delights. It was set aside for the conservation of rare fauna. Those who want to come here to see rare species will have to pay."