Birding with Jimmy Carter in Nepal

On the former US president’s 98th birthday Nepali conservationist recalls going bird watching with him

Conservationist Rajendra N Suwal with president Jimmy Carter and ambassador Peter Burleigh. All photos: RAJENDRA N SUWAL

As a bird watcher and naturalist, I have had opportunities to host many guests and dignitaries but birding with former president Jimmy Carter is the most memorable.

Carter, who has visited Nepal often on election monitoring, is known for his passionate support for human rights and democracy. Less well known is his passion for bird watching.

The Carter Center in Nepal was housed in Naxal at the residence of tourism entrepreneur Karna Sakya. As luck would have it, my office Nepal Nature dot Com that specialises in birds and biodiversity exploration was also in the same compound.

Moreover, Sakya and Ambassador Peter Burleigh who was Carter’s adviser were friends in the eighties and recommended me, a pupil of the late ornithologist Hari Sharan Nepali ‘Kazi Dai’ to lead the trip. Everything was fixed following a confirmation from conservationist Hemanta Mishra.

Sakya who founded the Nepal Bird Watching Club now known as Bird Conservation Nepal was my mentor in my early teen days, and Mishra when I was working as a naturalist in Chitwan.

Together they vouched for me and Kazi Dai, assuring Peter of our expertise. And a day before the trip in 2007, Kazi Dai and I did a final recce of the route, and coordinated with Shivapuri National Park (SNP) officials.

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On 16 June I reached Hotel Soaltee to receive President Carter. A special agent in his security team introduced me.

“Raj is here to guide you for your birding trip Mr President,” he said. Carter replied, “Great, Raj means royal, treat him as a royal.” It served to put me at ease.

On the way to the SNP, I gave President Carter a brief introduction to Nepal’s biodiversity. After the Chief Warden and Nepal Army officials received him, we were joined by Kazi Dai, and began our trip.

First, we visited the Pani Muhan, a small creek where as expected we spotted a Plumbeous redstart, and a flashy White-capped river redstart. On our 1.5km walk following a hill tract leading to Danda Gaun above Tokha, we saw 20 different bird species, a good number for the monsoon. We even spotted the showy Red-billed blue magpie.

Before ending the trip, I requested Carter for an autograph, I had brought his book with me. All in all, I was with him for three hours but in that time I found out that he had great respect for nature, as did his wife Rosalynn.

Back in the US the Carters recorded all the birds that visit their feeder. He also shared that a green laser pointer helps to spot a bird’s location better in a dense forest.

I was thrilled when asked to guide them both once again in 2013 when Carter came to consult on the second Constituent Assembly election.

This time we went to Nagajung sector of Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park and were accompanied by the Chief Warden who was a great help in locating birds. I also carried a green laser pointer with me remembering our last birding trip five years previously.

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One of the highlights of that trip was seeing a Rufous woodpecker on a bamboo clump. They looked vibrant and particularly chirpy that spring morning. Gray-hooded warbler and Gray-headed canary flycatcher on the other hand were busy feeding on a canopy.

Towards the end of the trip, President Carter softly put his Carter Center cap on my head. My family including wife Sharmila, 87-year-old mother Indra Kumari and son Ayush were invited to Dwarika’s for a family photograph.

The next birding trip happened in November 2013 in Godavari, this time joined by his friend Ambassador Peter Burleigh and the then Nepal Army Chief General Gaurav Rana.

While we drove from Hotel Radisson to our site, I showed him a video about the migration of the Demoiselle crane filmed by BBC in 2004 for Discovery Channel in which I was a consultant.

It was still dark when we reached Godavari. As dawn was breaking, we heard the call of the Collared owlet and immediately followed by that of a barking deer. I briefed Carter about Nepal Army’s role in conserving our protected areas, their efforts in discouraging poachers and recent achievements including zero rhino poaching years.

Before we knew it, five hours had passed. President Carter shared with us about his hobby of beekeeping, his expedition to Mongolia for trout fishing and his love for a jeep safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

We saw several birds on that trip including Mountain bulbul, Striated laughing thrush and Maroon oriole. On the way back, President Carter invited me to join him for breakfast.

The next evening, coincidentally we were both on the same Cathay Pacific flight KA 191, him back home to the US via Hong Kong and me to Fiji for ecotourism training.

Carter looked relaxed. The second Constituent Assembly election had gone off peacefully, a mission accomplished.

Quietly, I went to take my seat and started reminiscing about all of our birding trips and conversations.

Over the years, we kept in touch via letters. When my mother passed away in 2014, I received a letter of condolence from Madam Rosalynn.

My prayers to President Carter as he celebrates his 98th birthday this 1 October.

Rajendra N Suwal is the Head of Partnerships Development at WWF Nepal.

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