Where wild things are

Just a short drive from the Ring Road is Pulchoki, Kathmandu Valley’s biodiversity treasure trove

Green Pit Viper. All photos: MAHENDRA SINGH LIMBU

Denizens of Kathmandu need to know that there is a wilderness area of super rich biodiversity just a 30-minute drive from the Ring Road.

The 2,750m high Pulchoki is the highest point on the Valley rim, and a favourite picnic spot for the citizens of Kathmandu. Every weekend and on holidays hundreds of noisy picnickers flood the forest of Pulchoki in Godavari, and the blaring music and shouting scares the animals away. They also leave piles of trash.

Unlike national parks like Shivapuri or Chitwan, Pulchoki is not guarded by the army. Yet its forests have been largely protected because of its steep slopes and community forestry groups lower down.

And despite the destruction of trees by charcoal burners in the past, Pulchoki still shelters a wide variety of interesting mammals, rodents and reptiles. Though these denizens are not as large or outstanding as their relatives in national parks, they are still fascinating for wildlife spotters.

The slopes are steep, some rocky cliffs, thickets, ravines, all cloaked in a cloud forest of oak and rhododendron covered in orchids and lichen and an undergrowth thick with ferns. This makes it nearly impossible to see the animals, which is why any fleeting glimpse is so rewarding.

The motorable road that meanders to the telecommunication tower at the summit is convenient for walking along, but that is not where the wildlife are. It is a matter of being at the right place, so the wildlife goes unnoticed as a result. But they are all there in the green shadows.

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Friends of the Forest

Where wild things are
Barking Deer

I have been fortunate over the years to spot some of these friends of our forest, and here they are: 

If you hear a dog-like bark in the middle of Pulchoki forest (regardless of the hours), it is a harmless Barking Deer (Muntiacus muntjac) that is voicing an alarm. This small deer is very shy and is more often heard than seen. The only species of the deer family in this forest, it frequents wild bamboo thickets (Arundinaria sp.), especially when they sprout young shoots with the pre-monsoon rains. It travels along ravines and steep slopes, an instinctive precaution in avoiding danger from its predator, the only large resident carnivore (aside from human poachers), the Hill Leopard (Panthera pardus).

Its grating raspy call during the mating season (generally in the summer and winter) often becomes the only indication that a leopard is lurking nearby. They prey on Barking Deer, and will occasionally lift a dog, a goat or a cow. It is only when a female is tutoring her young in the art of a ‘clean kill’ that the action seems irrational. Some years ago, three cows were killed in a single night in a village at the edge of the forest but were not eaten at all. They rarely harm humans, and do not deserve their blood-thirsty reputation.

But one that is by definition blood-thirsty is the leech, which erupts from the undergrowth during the monsoon months. 

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Where wild things are
Yellow-throated Marten

The Yellow-throated Marten (Martes flavigula) is slightly larger than a rabbit with a black face, black feet and a long bushy black tail. This animal almost always hunts in pairs, both at night and in the day. This is a smart animal, which can open the hole of a bee hive with its sharp teeth, insert its tail, wriggle it around and pull it out along with angry but tasty bees.

It also hunts the Indian Hare (Lepus sp.) and this is where working in pairs yields results as they zigzag to zero in on the quarry. The Marten also raids chicken coops in villages, to kill as many as it can with a clean bite through the head.

The nocturnal Gray Himalayan Palm Civet (Paguma larvata) likes cherry-berries of the painu (Prunus sp.) when it ripens in April. The tree is tall, and the animal defecates just before its descent, which it does head first with utmost caution.

The Indian Civet (Viverra zibetha) is comical in appearance, looking like a cross between the zebra and the raccoon. It visits the outer fringes of the villages and occasionally falls victim to dogs. It dines on smaller animals and likes to scavenge kitchen waste.

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Where wild things are
Orange-bellied Squirrel

The Jackal (Canis aureus) hunts chickens, stranded goats, insects and anything that hops, skips, jumps or flies is in its eat-if-you-can-catch menu. Its howls are like a saxophone "Boo-bah, booah, boooha…" and local people believe hearing it is inauspicious. It definitely is eerie, but what makes it even more eerie is the superstitious belief of the local people. The author has heard this call on six different occasions and this belief has come to pass in five of them.

The Jungle Cat (Felis chaus) is much larger than the domestic house cat and its coat has a brownish dirty tint. Besides hunting rodents, wild cats have been known to make off with goat kids from the village.

The Otter (Lutra sp.) has a plump dark-brown body but very few people have seen this animal colloquially known as “Oat”.

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Where wild things are

The Mongoose (Herpestes sp.) is very cautious and keeps a safe distance from humans but can frequently be seen around settlements. Though this agile creature is noted for its skill in killing snakes, this activity has not been reported by any locals. Young chicken do fall prey.   

Among the snakes on Pulchoki is the Himalayan Pit Viper (Agkistrodon himalayanas) which is quite common and is most active during the night. Brownish with black patterns on its body makes it easy to spot as a poisonous one but its venom is not usually fatal.

The other poisonous snake is the Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus albolabris ) with striking iridescent green scales that camouflages it well in the foliage while it waits for prey, and is as poisonous as the Pit Viper.

The King Cobra is a newcomer, though old texts mention it has been recorded in this area. A male and a female have been sighted on different occasions, both in and around ICIMOD Living Mountain Lab. Hibernation is in holes, under rocks, and sometimes in piles of rotting vegetation (including compost heaps).

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Where wild things are

The Himalayan Black Bear (Selenarctos thibetanus) can be dangerous if startled and can charge. There have been no reports of such attacks on Pulchoki, but it is prudent to be cautious. They climb trees to get at the acorns, leaving claw marks on the bark.

The rare Pangolin (Manis sp.), the Giant Flying Squirrel (Petaurista petaurista), the Orange-bellied Squirrel (Dremomys lokriah) and the Indian Porcupine (Hystrix indica) are all harmless and have their homes in the forest. The last known Himalayan Tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus) of Pulchoki was wiped out by poachers some years ago but the Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) has made a successful comeback. Actually, too successful because it has multiplied prolifically and raids farms.

Pulchoki is also a birder’s paradise, with 360 of the 890 species of birds found in Nepal spotted here. It is also a refuge for a vast variety of butterflies, dragonflies and other insects. There are very few places in Nepal that have such a rich repository of wildlife in such a small area. 

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