Only vultures left behind

Birds inspired the first flying machines, but in Pokhara, airplanes are now displacing them from their natural habitat

Photo: Hemanta Dhakal

A day after the inauguration of Pokhara International Airport, writer Ganesh Poudel remarked on Facebook that the vultures displaced by the new airport had relocated to his farm house.

“Possibly they are making a night stop after being displaced," he wrote. “Like us, they too will also be evicted from this valley.” 

Poudel’s family had lived for generations in the area where the new airport was built. Many farms and homes were taken over by the government 40 years ago when the idea of the new airport was first mooted.

“Thousands of people were forced to move out, destroying our social and cultural relations. Now, the airport has even disrupted the lives of the many birds and the entire ecosystems,” he added. “They have turned birds and humans into refugees."

While people whose land was occupied for the construction of the airport have received compensation and relocated, many birds including the raptors that used to inhabit the area have been driven out because of the danger they cause to planes flying in and out. 

The approach flight path to the overflies the habitat of vultures and eagles, which like Pokhara Valley's topographic extremes that allow the buildup of thermals. Even before the completion of the airport, conservationists had raised concerns about the safety of endangered birds and the risk of potential bird strikes at the new airport. 

Vultures and eagles also congregated at the landfill site near the airport's eastern edge, and the local government that was tasked with relocating the landfill site  failed to do so.

Every winter flocks of birds migrate to Pokhara, travelling thousands of kilometres from the Tibetan Plateau and even as far away as Mongolia, for its warmer climate, lakes, wetlands, overall greenery and open spaces.

Indigenous birds also like Pokhara's habitat because of its many lakes and wetlands.  Even when the noise from the more than 100 flights a day to Pokhara's two airports has not deterred them.

“Many birds, including vultures, have spent their entire life-cycles here,” says Manshant Ghimire of Pokhara Bird Society. “Just as it is difficult for a person to leave the place where they were born and raised, and grew old, it is the same for the birds.”

Prior to building the airport, the area was a large pasture for cattle. In addition, the nearby landfill site was perfect for vultures to fly, forage and flourish.

According to journalist Krishna Mani Baral, when horses, donkey and other animals that grazed in the fields of Pokhara died, the vultures would scavenge on their carcass. For years, many birds, including the Himalayan Griffon vulture, Egyptian vultures and small gray vultures, have made the landfill site their home due to the abundance of food there.

For the past five years, bird conservationists have routinely asked the authorities to move the landfill site before the inauguration of the international airport to conserve the endangered species before it is too late, as well as for aviation safety. 

Pokhara Municipality has not yet found a proper alternative for the landfill site. In fact, a few days after the airport opened, a steppe eagle struck a landing aircraft. the plane landed safely, but the eagle did not survive.

“To ensure the safety of planes, these birds must be properly relocated from the area to prevent potential bird strikes,” says ornithologist Hem Sagar Baral.

Pokhara is home to nine different endangered species of vultures which have undergone considerable decline in recent years. The White-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis), Slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostis), Red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) and Indian vulture (Gyps indicus) are on the IUCN critically endangered list.

Conservationist Hemant Dhakal believes that the city should coordinate with scientists and ornithologists to safely relocate the vultures. “Flights could also be reduced between 10am to 2pm when vultures are most active,” he says. 

The airport is using firecrackers and sirens to drive off vultures from the runway, but they are still soaring along the approach path. 

“It is an inhumane way and can send a bad message internationally,” according to Dhakal, who has been monitoring vultures for 10 years and is part of the IUCN Vulture Conservation Group. “Such insensitivity can also lead to more accidents  and give Pokhara a bad name.”

Vultures, like most birds, breed only once a year. At this time of the year, young hatchlings are just growing in their nests, and adult vultures have no choice but to return to the vicinity of the airport. 

Baral adds, “Constructing such a big project and failing to find an alternative habitat for birds has gravely affected for avian life.”

Vultures, despite their bad reputation, are integral to the ecosystem. In their absence there will be no scavengers to dispose of carrion, leading to disease outbreaks among humans and cattle. Nepal has established itself as a pioneer in vulture conservation over the years, and just when the birds are showing signs of coming back, lack of management and attention can reverse past gains.

Bird Conservation Nepal opened a ‘Vulture Restaurant’ near Pokhara 12 years ago that provided uncontaminated food for birds.  Operated and managed locally, the centre provided birds meat that did not have the steroid dicoflenac that was poisonous for vultures and was contained in livestock that had been treated with the medicine. 

The presence of vultures was not contained in the environment impact assessment (EIA) of Pokhara's new airport, although it was later covered in a supplementary environmental assessment.

Experts say the real problem will be in four to five months when the hatchlings will grow, and the mother birds have to forage to feed the young in their nests. 

Translated from the Himal Khabar original by Aria Parasai.