‘Sharing the air’ proves a challenge for Nepal’s new airport in bird paradise
- Conservationists and aviation officials have raised concerns about the risk of bird strikes at a new international airport due to open in Pokhara, Nepal later this year.
- The flight path to the Chinese-funded airport passes through the habitat of vultures and eagles.
- A landfill site near the airport also attracts these birds of prey, increasing the risk of bird strikes.
- Municipal authorities tasked with moving the landfill have yet to do so, even though construction of the airport is nearing completion in July.
KATHMANDU — Nine Ramsar-listed lakes, perennial rivers that flow from the Himalayas and beyond, and lush green fields at the foot of the mountains: these features make Pokhara, a tourist town in western Nepal, a paradise for the birds.
But the paradise, home to 470 species of birds, could soon be abuzz with planes flying in and out of the city, which depends on tourism money to keep itself afloat. Every year, thousands of people from all over the world visit Pokhara, also the gateway to the famous Annapurna Circuit trek, to enjoy its natural beauty and participate in adventure sports such as paragliding, mountain biking, boating and canyoning.
A regional international airport, spread over 200 hectares (nearly 500 acres) is being built 3 kilometers, or less than 2 miles, east of the city’s existing domestic airport. The facility will serve as Nepal’s third international hub, after Kathmandu and Bhairahawa. Once operational, the airport is expected to welcome flights to neighboring India and China and to Southeast Asia, seen as a potential tourist market.
“The contractor has been granted a July deadline to complete the construction works,” said Bikram Raj Gautam, head of the Pokhara office of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal. “We will start the flights soon after the government gives us a date to do so,” he added.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during his visit to Nepal at the end of March, handed over the symbolic key of the airport to his Nepalese counterpart, signaling that the airport will soon be ready for operation.
Residents of the city have long been calling for the construction of an international airport in Pokhara so that tourists wishing to come directly to the city can do so without having to transit through the capital, Kathmandu, which until recently was the only airport campaign international. Work on the new regional airport, which had been planned in the 1970s, only began in 2016 following sit-ins and protest demonstrations by residents. The federal government signed a $216 million loan agreement with China Exim Bank to finance the airport.
As its launch date approaches, conservationists are concerned about endangered birds of prey roaming the skies of Pokhara. They warn that the birds could collide with planes, risking their own lives as well as those of those on board. Bird strikes are common at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, more than six decades after the first flights landed.
“Our main concern with the airport is the Bachchebaduwa landfill located near the new airport,” said ornithologist Krishna Prasad Bhushal, also a member of the Vulture Specialist Group at IUCN, the world conservation authority. . “Landfill sites attract birds of prey such as vultures and eagles because they are filled with animal carcasses and other organic waste.”
As the landscape of the valley is ideal for vultures, Pokhara is home to all nine species of vultures found in South Asia, where their numbers have declined, especially in the plains. The birds can be seen circling the valley in search of food on the ground, especially near the city landfill area, which is only a few kilometers from the new airport. Critically endangered species such as the slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) and the white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis) have also been found nesting in the valley for years. “Similarly, the area falls on the migration route of the endangered steppe eagle [Aquila nipalensis]Bhushal said.
Although more than 50 other migratory birds, mostly waterfowl, have been recorded in Pokhara during the winter, they are less likely to strike a plane as they mostly stay in wetland waters during their stay and do not hover not in the sky like vultures and eagles do, Bhushal told Mongabay.
Another problem, according to Hemanta Dhakal, secretary of the Pokhara Bird Society, an NGO working on the conservation of birds and their habitats, is the Bijaypur stream which flows west of the airport. The river brings with it animal carcasses from upstream, especially during the monsoon, attracting birds of prey, he said. “The main concern is bird collisions during takeoff and landing,” Dhakal said. He was among residents who urged the government to revise the project’s initial environmental impact assessment, which failed to incorporate the threat posed to and by endangered birds.
Following lobbying by conservationists, the federal government recently commissioned a supplemental EIA of the project. The draft report, available on the Ministry of Forestry and Environment website, identifies the main bird species that would be affected by the airport and those that would affect traffic at the airport. It also indicates that the landfill and the river are the main areas of concern. He suggests that the burial site be moved elsewhere and the river monitored regularly.
However, progress has been slow. Bhushal said the landfill should have been moved now as it is only a matter of months before the first international flights arrive. “Eagles and vultures are already used to feeding at the landfill,” Bhushal said. “Even if we clean up the landfill today, the birds will still come to the landfill because they are used to finding easy prey there.” The EIA report also notes that crow’s nests have previously been observed on airport premises.
Gautam from the Civil Aviation Authority agreed that the landfill should be cleaned up as soon as possible. “We understand that if we keep feeding the pigeons on our roof for 10 days and stop on the 11th, they will keep coming to us even though there is no food,” he said. .
To this end, the office of the chief minister of the province recently organized a meeting of stakeholders to speed up the process. The Pokhara-Lekhnath Metropolitan City Office, responsible for managing the city’s landfills, has been criticized for not moving the landfill in time.
The city office said it has already identified a location for the new landfill and is working to acquire the land. “The new site is about 10 km [6 mi] away from the airport and the Civil Aviation Authority also gave it approval,” said Bharat Raj Paudel, Information Officer at the Pokhara-Lekhnath Metropolitan City Office.
Gautam told Mongabay that the Civil Aviation Authority understands the value of critically endangered species such as vultures and cannot imagine killing them.
“Instead, we’re looking at deploying light reflectors and other available technologies to steer birds away from danger,” he said. “It is important to understand that the air also belongs to the birds, and that one cannot hope to fly in the sky devoid of birds. We need to be able to share the air with them and ensure their safety as well as ours.
Banner image: The new regional international airport in the Nepalese city of Pokhara. Image courtesy of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal.
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