By Audrey Alfson
Special for the Argus
Each year during the first full weekend in March, the city of Houston and the Friends of the Houston Nature Center host over 1,500 people at the International Festival of Owls. People come from across the country and around the world to learn about owls and celebrate those who are doing work to conserve owls, their habitat and teach others what they know.
This year the festival welcomed honored guests from South Africa and Germany, Montana and for the first time, celebrated concurrently with an entire village in Nepal.
Raju Acharya came to the festival in 2011 to receive a “Special Achievement Award” for his work on owl conservation and education in Nepal. Inspired by Houston’s festival, Raju worked over the past year to create an Owl Festival in his own country. The result was a two-day celebration, on March 2-3, in the Sangkosh village in the Dhading district of Nepal, a remote village with approximately 60 households. Despite its location, accessible only by four wheel drive vehicles or on foot from the nearest blacktop road, and a four to seven hour journey over miles of winding mountaintop roads from the nearest large city of Kathmandu, over 200 people attended.
Nepal is a country of 29 million people from 102 different ethnic castes and speaking 92 different languages. About the size of Arkansas, Nepal is surrounded by India on three sides and Tibet to the north.
Most people know it as home to eight of the 10 highest mountain peaks in the world, including Mt. Everest, and the backbone of the Himalayan Mountain Range. Amidst this tremendous diversity and challenging geography exists a challenge for owls and those who want to conserve them. In many areas, owls are seen as evil spirits and killed for use as totems, some people believe that parts of owls have medicinal purposes, and some people just eat them for food.
One of Raju’s biggest concerns is the hunting and illegal trade of owls to other countries as well as the illegal practice of keeping owls captive. Overcoming these cultural biases through education, research and the media has been Raju’s biggest task.
If Karla Bloem, naturalist at the Houston Nature Center, were to visit Nepal’s festival, she would see many wonderful similarities to Houston’s celebration: owl face-painting, bird watching trips, nature-themed poetry, essay and artwork from local students, international speakers, and awards.
One award went to a local music group, whose lyrics spoke of forest conservation, and who donated proceeds from over 100 concerts in 17 districts to owl habitat conservation.
Another award went to a Community Forest Users’ Group, who donated six hectares of land (~15 acres) as an owl conservation area making it the first owl conservation area in Nepal, which among other things, bans the use of catapults and guns. These may seem simple things to Americans, but in an impoverished country just beginning to understand the importance of conserving natural resources for future generations, it’s huge.
Ten years ago, when Houston’s Festival of Owls first “hatched”, no one thought it would become the celebration that it is today. Certainly, no one could have anticipated that one small town’s festival would inspire a similar celebration half a world away. Houston can be proud to say that it’s helping to make the world a better place. One owl at a time.