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Winter sanctuary in Nepal proves a killing field for yellow-breasted buntings

  • Tens of thousands of yellow-breasted buntings are being killed and eaten in Nepal every winter, according to an ornithologist.
  • The critically endangered species is already severely threatened in its range countries, where it’s also consumed as a delicacy, and now runs the same risks along its migratory route.
  • The popularity of the bird’s meat stems from a myth that it warms the body in winter and has an aphrodisiac effect.
  • Conservationists have called for a wide-scale community-based awareness campaign to dispel the myths related to the bird.

KATHMANDU — Ornithologist Hem Bahadur Katwal, who studies farmland birds, says he’s excited about an upcoming trip to visit Nepal’s plains when the monsoon rains end in September.

This is the time when the cold starts creeping in over the lands farther north — Russia, Mongolia, China — and thousands of migratory birds flock to warmer Nepal. Although he says the sight of these visiting birds elates him, Katwal adds he feels sad deep down as many of the birds may never get to return to their homes.

“Every time we go to the field in winter, we encounter eateries selling ‘delicacies’ made of meat from farm birds,” he says. “They are sold as bagedi meat” — or yellow-breasted bunting (Emberiza aureola). The menus on display are particularly disheartening, says Katwal, who has closely observed both international and national efforts to save this species that’s on the verge of extinction.

Once common across the Northern Hemisphere, the yellow-breasted bunting is now a rare sight in its range countries as well as on its migratory routes, including in Nepal. Until 2004, the bird was listed as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List. Just eight years later, however, its conservation status worsened, to endangered, and today it’s considered critically endangered.

Various studies show that both their population and range are declining fast. According to BirdLife International, the species’ population is estimated to have declined by 84.3-94.7% between 1980 and 2013. BirdLife says it believes that although the decline may have been slow initially, it could have accelerated in the last few years.

Trapped yellow-breasted buntings in China in 2012. Photo by: Huang Qiusheng

According to conservationists, the bird faces its main existential challenge in range countries such as China, where it’s hunted in massive numbers during various festivals for its meat. The Chinese government banned the killing of the bird in 1997, but conservationists say they believe illegal hunting continues.

“The birds, which are already threatened in their range areas, face added threats in migratory routes in countries such as Nepal,” says Ishana Thapa, CEO of Bird Conservation Nepal, a partner of BirdLife International.

The popularity of the bunting’s meat stems from a popular myth that it warms the body during winter and has aphrodisiac properties. It’s also considered tastier than poultry. “It has become so popular that eateries are buying the meat of any other bird that resembles the bunting in size,” Katwal says.

He says he’s encountered seasonal hunters who know where to find these birds and trap them. “The spend the entire winter trapping and killing these birds and selling them for meat,” Katwal says.

A survey he carried out of 55 eateries in Madhesh province found that, on average, 160-180 plates of bagedi were sold by each eatery every day — although not all of these would be yellow-breasted buntings. “This means that around 115,000 to 130,000 birds need to be killed every winter to meet the demand for meat each year. We also found that around $65,000-$73,000 changed hands during the process,” Katwal says. There could potentially be thousands of such eateries spread across Nepal selling bagedi meat.

Nepal’s riverine floodplains provide a wonderful habitat for migratory birds. Image by Abhaya Raj Joshi

Katwal also found that around 25 species of birds were being killed and passed off as bagedi in the area he surveyed, ranging from sparrows to other buntings. “The craze for bagedi is so much that people are killing other birds that are of similar size as the yellow-breasted bunting in the name of bagedi,” Katwal says.

Ornithologist Krishna Bhusal, who was part of a team that surveyed the yellow-breasted bunting population in selected areas of the country, says that in addition to hunting, the species’ habitat is also under threat in Nepal. “Yellow-breasted buntings are found in farmlands and wetlands during winter in Nepal. Heavy pesticide use, building of houses in farmlands and encroachment of wetlands have severely affected their habitats,” Bhusal says. “The bird was pretty common in the Kathmandu Valley until a few decades ago, but large flocks are hard to find these days.”

Bhusal says the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) provides a way forward for the protection of species such as the yellow breasted bunting. “Around 128 countries have already signed up to it, but Nepal is yet to do so,” he says. “Even if Nepal doesn’t sign the convention, we could adopt some of its protocols such as the ones related to its monitoring and counting.”

Conservationists say they believe a wide-scale community-based awareness campaign needs to be organized to dispel the myths related to the bird.

This, they say, could begin by encouraging municipal governments to implement bird conservation programs in their areas. “We have seen from the success of our vulture conservation campaign that raising awareness is key to saving any species,” Thapa says. “We need to adopt a similar approach and the government also needs to do its bit.”

Banner Image: A yellow-breasted bunting seen in a farm in Nepal. Image by Mannshanta Ghimire/Wikimedia. CC by 4.0

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