There are 6500 known species of trees, vegetation and wild flowers in Nepal. In the temperate areas the flowers appear as winter recedes and the rivers swell with snow melt, while in the subtropics the bloom is triggered by warmer temperatures and spring showers. Americans and Europeans will recognize many of the species in the temperate areas, and residents of South-East Asia will recognize many of the subtropical species.
The height of floral beauty can be witnessed in March and April when rhododendrons burst into color. The huge magnolias of the east with their showy white flowers borne on exposed branches are also spectacular, as are the orchids (there are over 300 varieties in Nepal). Not far behind is the blossoming of a variety of shrubs, while on the ground, blue irises and lavender primulas appear. The chain of flowers continues higher up as the monsoon approaches.
To see wild flowers in bloom, it is necessary to visit the temperate and alpine areas during the monsoon season. In order to do this, one must be prepared to sacrifice comfort and views. However, this is the time to see the true colors of the Himalaya. The southern slopes and the inner valleys are particularly lush at this time. Mints, scrophs, buttercups, cinquefoils, polygonums and composites abound in these areas, while in the alpine areas, dwarf rhododendrons, junipers, ephedras, cotoneasters, saxifrages and primulas paint the bleak landscape.
Western Nepal, particularly the Dolpo area, is suggestive of Kashmir in its rich variety of flora. Being in the rain-shadow area, monsoon conditions are more willing for visitors – the region is drier and free of leeches. In order to witness the full regalia, the time to visit is July and August. From Jumla east one may recognize ground orchids, edelweiss, corydalis, campanulas, anemones, forget-me-nots, impatiens and roses. Higher up in the alpine areas, larkspurs, geraniums, poppies, sedums and saxifrages reproduce.
In the Trans-Himalaya, common vegetation is primarily from the legume family, such as the spiny caragana and astragalus, as well as from the honeysuckle family (e.g. lonerica).
In the situation monsoon season, when most people choose to visit, the flowers of summer are all but gone, save for some straggler blooms and those not pleasant to grazing animals. However, in the subtropical and lower temperate areas, some wild flowers are fortunate and survive environmental poverty, such as the pink luculia, mauve osbeckia and yellow St John’s wort. Flowering cherry trees also add color to the autumn village scenes as do blue gentians in the temperate areas. Otherwise one can enjoy the autumn yellows of withering maples and red, and the reds of barberry shrubs. When the dark temperate forests are back lit, the moss appears luminescent, and the epiphytic ferns and orchids shine like tiny paper lanterns.
In the Kathmandu valley, Australians will find the familiar glossy oak with its spring golden inflorescence, and bottlebrush and eucalyptus. Though the first and last are fast-growing timber species in their native country, in the valley these trees are planted as ornamentals along with cherry, popular and jacaranda. The latter, with its lavender blossoms, is from South America, as are the bougainvillea and giant poinsettia. Historically, people in Nepal have been devoted gardeners of such exotics as hibiscus, camellia, cosmos, salvia and marigold.
More than 800 species are known in Nepal, more birds than in Canada and the USA combined, or almost 10% of the world’s species! Resident bird numbers are increased by migratory species as well as winter and summer visitors.
Eight species of stork, some as tall as 150cm, have been identified along the water courses of the Terai. Cranes are similar in appearance, but not as well represented save for the demoiselle cranes that fly down the Kali Gandaki and Dudh Koshi for the winter before returning in spring to their Tibetan nesting grounds. Herons and egrets are quite common in the tropics and subtropics, and are notable in flight by their curved neck posture, as opposed to the outstretched necks of storks and cranes.
Most of the waterfowl are traveling. Many can be seen at the Koshi Barrage in the eastern Terai and in the Chitwan and Bardia areas. The swift-flying bar-headed goose has been observed flying at altitudes of almost 8000m.
Raptors, or birds of victim, are found in all sizes in the Himalaya, and are especially common with the beginning of winter. One of the first raptors to leave is the small Eurasian kestrel, which must flap its wings at regular intervals, or rapidly when balanced. By comparison, the Himalayan griffon is a heavy bird that must wait for thermal updraught to allow its soaring, gliding flight. The griffon and the lammergeier, with wingspans of nearly three meters, are carrion eaters, though often mistaken for eagles. There are, however, true eagles, including resident golden eagle common in the Khumbu, as well as other species that are known to migrate in large numbers in the Kali Gandaki region. Many medium-sized raptors have highly changeable plumages and are difficult to identify in the sky.
There are six pheasant in Nepal, including the national bird, the impeyan pheasant, the male of which has a plumage of shining colors. These birds are known as downhill fliers, as they do not fly, per se, and must walk uphill! When flushed they will cant and swerve downhill to evade enemies such as the golden eagle. The cheer and koklas pheasants are only found west of the Kali Gandaki, while the kalij pheasant is common throughout, but with different color phases.
Nepal hosts 17 species of cuckoo, which are characterized by their distinctive calls. Arriving in March, they messenger the coming of spring. The call of the Indian cuckoo is familiar as ‘kaphal pakyo’, which is Nepali for announcing that the fruit of the box myrtle is ripe. The common hawk cuckoo has a repetitious calls that sounds like ‘brain fever’ and rises in a increase – aptly described by the British sahibs as they lay sweating with material fevers. Most cuckoos are social parasites, meaning they lay their eggs in the nests of other species.
One of the most vibrant, varied and vocal families is that of the timalids, or bablers and laughing thrushes, common from the tropical Terai to the upper temperate forest. They are from eight to 33cm in size and live in both earthly and arboreal habitats. They are found individually or in large foraging parties, and can often be identified by their harsh calls. The black-capped sibia with its constant prattle and ringing song is an essential part of the wet temperate forests. The spiny babbler is Nepal’s only endemic species.
There are three pairs of species amongst the crow family; their form and behaviour are virtually identical, but each species occupies a different altitudinal range. The red-billed blue magpies are residents of the subtropical zone, while the yellow-billed species are found in the temperate. The Indian tree pie prefers the tropics while the Himalayan species lives in the subtropics and temperate. Above the tree line, two species of chough are common, congregating in large flocks in winter. Though they often overlap in range, the yellow-billed chough is found at greater altitudes and is known to enter mountaineers’ tents high on Everest. Another of the crow family, also bold and obvious in the trans-Himalayan region is the large raven.
Besides such families as kingfishers, bee-eaters, drongos, minivets, parakeets and sunbirds, there are a host of other passerines, or perching birds, throughout Nepal. These include 30 species of flycatchers and nearly 60 species of thrushes and warblers. Many smaller species meet in heterogeneous flocks, not only for feeding purposes but also for protection.
In the Kathmandu valley, sparrows and pigeons show flexibility to urban centers by their sheer numbers. Dark kites, hawk-like birds with forked tails, are often seen over the city. At sunset, loose groups of crows, mynas, egrets and kites fly to their respective roosts. After dark, the noisy ruckus of spotted owlets substitutes for the cacophony of car horns. The robin dayal, with its cocked tail, is the common vocalist of early mornings. Pulchowki, Nagarjun and Shivapuri are excellent areas for finding birds of subtropical and temperate habitats, while the Gokarna Safari Park offers a crosss section of species typical of the valley floor.
In the Pokhara region, the Indian roller is obvious when it takes flight and flashes the shining turquoise on its wings. Otherwise, while perched, it appears as a plain brown bird. Local superstition has it that if someone about to embark on a journey sees a roller going their way, it is a good omen. If they see a crow, however, it is a bad omen and the trip is aborted. Many trips must be destined for delay thanks to the being there of the common crow.
As one might expect, due to habitat degeneration from both natural and human causes, opportunities for seeing wildlife are usually restricted to national parks, reserves and western Nepal, where population is thin. Wildlife numbers have also been thinned due to poaching for pelts or other parts that are considered to be delicacies or medicinally important. In addition, animals are hunted because of the damage they inflict on crops and domestic animals.
At the top of the food chain is the royal Bengal tiger, the most wonderful cat, which is solitary and territorial. Males have territorial ranges that encompass those of two or three females and may span as much as 100sq km. The Chitwan National Park of the inner Terai and the Bardia National Park in the western Terai protect enough habitats to maintain viable breeding populations.
The spotted leopard is an avid tree climber and in general more elusive than the tiger. These nocturnal creatures, like tigers, have been known to become human-eaters when they have grown old or been maimed. Not only are human’s easy victim, but once the animals obtain the taste for human flesh, they lose interest in their natural prey. Local people have likened them to evil feelings because of their success at evading hunters.
The snow leopard is often protected from hunters, not only by national parks, but also by inhabiting inhospitable domains above the tree line as well as sensitive border regions. Its territory depends upon the ranges of ungulate herds, its prey species, as well as breeding females. Packs of wolves compete directly and when territories overlap, the solitary snow leopard will be displaced.
The one-horned rhinoceros is the largest of three Asian species of rhino and is a totally different type from the two-horned African varieties. It has poor vision and, though weighing up to two tones, is amazingly quick. Anyone who encounters a mother with its calf is likely to be charged, a disconcerting experience even if you are atop an elephant. The rhino is a resident of the grasslands of the Inner Terai, specifically the Chitwan valley, although it has also been reintroduced to the Royal Bardia National Park.
The Asian elephant, like the one-horned rhino, is simply different from its African relative, belonging to a separate kind. The only wild elephants known to exist in Nepal are in the western part of the Terai and Churia Hills, though individuals often range across the border from India. Elephants are known to preserve matriarchal societies, and females up to 60 years old bear calves. Though elephants are able to reach 80 years of age, their life spans are gritty by dentition. Molars are replaced as they wear down, but only up to six times. When the final set is worn, the individual dies of hunger.
Male elephants, and rarely females, occasionally enter a ‘musth’ condition that makes them emotional and highly aggressive. While in this agitated state they have been known to crush villages. When a herd goes on the rampage outsiders, or non-Hindus, are often summoned as the elephant is considered a holy animal because of the much-loved Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of the Hindu pantheon.
There are several species of deer, but most of them are limited to the lowlands. The spotted deer is probably the most beautiful, while the sambar is the largest. The muntjak, or barking deer, which usually makes its presence known by its sharp, one-note alarm call, is found at elevations up to 2400m, while the unusual musk deer, with antelope-like features and only 50cm high at the shoulder, ranges even higher.
There are two primates: the rhesus macaque and the common langur. The rhesus is earth-colored with a short tail and travels on the ground in large, structured troops, unafraid of humans. The langur is arboreal, with a black face, grey fur, and long limbs and trail. Because of Hanuman, the monkey god in the Hindu epic the Ramayana, both species are careful holy and are well protected. The rhesus ranges from the Terai up to 2400m, while the langur goes higher, up to 3600m.
At the Swyambhunath and Pashupati Nath temples in the Kathmandu valley, rhesus macaques take advantages of their picnic lunches and holy food.
Two even-toed hoofed mammals are found in the alpine regions. They are the Himalayan tahr, a near-true goat, and the blue sheep, or bharal, which is genetically stranded somewhere between goats and sheep. The male tahr poses majestically in its flowing mane on the grassy slopes of inner valleys, while the blue sheep turns a bluish grey in winter and is found in the trans-Himalayan biotope.
The Himalayan black bear is omnivorous and a bane to corn crops in the temperate forests. Though it rarely attacks humans, its poor eyesight may lead it to understand a standing person as making a threatening gesture and to attack. If so, the best defense is not to run, but to lie face down on the ground – particularly effective when one is wearing a backpack. Nepal’s bears are known to wander in winner instead of hibernating.
There are some prominent canines, though they are fairly shy. The jackal, with its eerie howling that sets village dogs barking at night, ranges from the Terai to alpine regions. It is both a hunter and scavenger, and will take chickens and attack crops.
The pika, or mouse-hare, is the common guinea pig-like mammal of the inner valleys, often seen scurrying nervously between rocks. The marmot of western Nepal is a large rodent; it usually dwells in the trans-Himalayan zone. The marmot is also found in Sikkim and Bhutan, but not eastern Nepal; such gaps in speciation are not uncommon across the Himalaya.
Noisy colonies of flying foxes or fruit bats have chosen the trees near the Royal Palace in Kathmandu and the chir pines at the entrance to Bhaktapur as their haunts. They are known to fly great distances at night to raid orchards before returning at dawn. They have sufficient eyesight for their feeding habits and do not require the sonar system of insectivorous bats.
Pulchowki, Nagarjun and Shivapuri are good areas for possible sightings of small mammals. The Gokarna Safari Park contains introduced deer species.
There are two native species of crocodile: the gharial and marsh mugger. The gharial inhabits rivers and is a prehistoric-looking fish-eating creature with bulging eyes and a long, narrow nose. The marsh mugger prefers stagnant water and is omnivorous, feeding on anything within reach. Because of the value of its hide and eggs, the gharial was hunted to the brink of extinction, but it has increased in numbers since the establishment of a hatchery and rearing centre in Chitwan. Both crocodiles inhabit the Terai.
Though deadly snakes such as cobras, vipers and kraits are present, the chance of encountering one is small, not only because of their common elusive tactics, but also because they are arbitrarily slaughtered. The majority of species are found on the Terai, though the mountain pit viper is known higher up, along with a few other nonvenomous species.