KATHMANDU: Some know him as a snake expert, others call him a wildlife expert and many recognise him as a herpetologist. Prof Karan Bahadur Shah, in fact, has a good knowledge about almost all kinds of species — from fish to birds and mammals. The Professor of Zoology at the Natural History Museum, Tribhuvan University, with his over three decades of experience in these sectors, has become a valuable figure in the field of Nepali
Bright from childhood
Born as the third son of Ganga Bahadur Shahi and Deva Shahi in July 1954, Prof Shah had a very sharp memory since his childhood. He always stood first in class, but as a child he was very naughty. “I had a group of friends and I was their team leader. We would often get involved in mischiefs,” he adds.
He also spent some of his childhood days in Dadeldhura as a ‘junior hunter’. “Our family used to go hunting a lot,” recalls Prof Shah, who was often allowed to carry guns “though not allowed to use it”. Nevertheless, he would kill birds with a catapult. Thanks to those fun-filled days that “I was able to recognise birds and identify the tracks of many animals”.
After passing Class V in Dadeldhura, Prof Shah spent the other half of his childhood in Bombay, and pursued further studies there. After SLC, Prof Shah opted for ISc “to become a doctor”. And it was in Bombay, that he turned his surname from Shahi to Shah because “the word Shahi meant porcupine in
The ISc graduate from Bombay University then arrived in Kathmandu in 1973 (2030 BS) “to visit”. But “the weather and people here” attracted this young fellow, who then decided to study in Kathmandu.
But he was not good at Nepali and did not know what to pursue for higher education. As per a suggestion of a friend that “usually females study botany and males study zoology here” Prof Shah joined Zoology as his major and graduated in 1975 (2032 BS) with specialisation in Entomology from Tri-Chandra College. He was the topper along with being the first person to graduate from Mastamaundau VDC of Dadeldhura.
He topped Master’s Degree with specialisation in Entomology and was awarded the Mahendra Vidyabhushan. He then joined TC as a teacher in 1978 (2035 BS). “Teaching was a good profession as teachers enjoyed a good reputation then,” expresses Prof Shah who always “wanted to become a professor, if not a doctor”.
Discovering true passion
Prof Shah was very talented, active and research-oriented. These qualities drew the
attention of the then head of Natural History Museum (NHM) “who offered me a job in the beginning of 1980”.
No one was into herpetology at that time, and neither did it interest Prof Shah who started “working on it as my institutional responsibility.” Along with his team, Prof Shah would go into the fields, collect snakes, preserve the specimen and conduct studies. Learning while working, Prof Shah “was more exposed into this sector through foreign groups coming to Nepal for research”.
And among the various species within herpetology, he worked more in the sector of snakes. The reason being “snake is related to public health of Nepal”. There are many cases of snakebites and also they have religious significance, argues Prof Shah who is also involved with training of snake bite conducted by the government of Nepal. “People know me more as snake expert than herpetologist,” he adds.
While increasing his expertise in this sector, he was able to discover Trimeresurus karanshahi — a snake species commonly known as Hareu Sarpa in Nepal from Phulchowki in 1997 for the first time. “It became the New For Science discovery” and thus was named after Prof Shah.
And his most important study in wildlife “is of snow leopard study from 1981 to 1986”. Prof Shah reveals, “Our team, for the first time, monitored five snow leopards through radio collar in Shey-Phoksundo National Park. And what I learnt here became the base for further studies.”
On completion of this project, he returned to NHM, then worked as a herpetologist in Sikkim and Eastern Nepal . “During that time, our team discovered many species that were new for science as well as for Nepal”.
Cyrtopodion markuscombaii (Markus’ bent-toed gecko), Martin’s bent-toed gecko, Asymblepharus mahabharatus (Mahabharat ground skink), Asymblepharus nepalensis (Nepal ground skink), Sitana sivalensis (Nepalese fan throated lizard) and Oriotiaris dasi (Agaupani forest agama) are some new for science discoveries of Prof Shah and his team during different time periods.
Not to forget are Kiang (Equus kiang) and Gazella picticaudata (Tibetan Gazell) that he discovered in Upper mustang in 2001 that become new for Nepal. He also discovered a bird species — Syrrhaptes tibetanus (Tibetan Sandgrouse ) — a year later in Upper Mustang that was again new for Nepal. He claims to be the first scientist to work at an altitude of 5,800 metres, thus discovering these species.
He was also involved in the feasibility study of Manaslu Conservation Area before it was declared one. The author of over a dozen books, Prof Shah asserts, “My mastery is herpatofauna though I equally like mammals.”
Chairman of the Himalayan Nature, an international conservation research institute, he is working to “start a vulture restaurant in Koshi Tappu through this organisation”.
Either working as a herpetologist or a wildlife expert, the work is not easy “as you need a lot of hard work and dedication,” says Prof Shah who has turned his “profession into passion”.
Among others, he feels he has given “great contribution through the discoveries that are New For Science and New For Nepal”.
This is because, “You cannot conserve the species about which you don’t know. So, discovering a new species is a valuable contribution.”
Prof Shah, who plans to continue his job at NHM for the next four years, doesn’t forget to credit his wife Usha Shah “for her support as she has always remained helpful in whatever work I am doing”.
Fully satisfied with his job, Prof Shah feels he has contributed more than averagely in the scientific fraternity. And the secret to this achievement is, “selfless interest”.