Covid-19 in Nepal

My heart aches when I think of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nepal. The situation is dire, worse than in neighboring India.

The latest data I’ve seen (e.g., from Our World in Data) shows a positivity rate in Nepal standing at 47%, meaning that many cases are missed and every other person is infected. The full vaccination rate is 1%. There is little chance to get shots unless the US steps up.

Several of my colleagues have had or currently have COVID-19, including one former student, various colleagues, and several attendees at workshops I led there.

On a recent video call, two people failed to show up because they were sick, one didn’t come because his mother was ill, one just didn’t show up. One showed up but was sick and didn’t say much. Only one was healthy.

The airport is now shut down, so it’s difficult to get oxygen. The health system is overrun. A colleague I trust, Shisir Khanal, has started a GoFundMe: Help People Breathe: Oxygen For Tulsipur to buy oxygen or concentrators. Efforts like that are important, but much more is needed.

The country’s only zoo in Jawalakhel was shut for 10 months due to the pandemic. After reopening, a cap of about a quarter of the usual number of visitors has been imposed. Not surprisingly, the zoo has struggled to stay afloat since it depends heavily on visitor fees. Now, it appears that they may not be able to pay staff or feed the animals.

The only hope may be a new Adopt-an-animal program. Would you like to save an Asian elephant, a one-horned rhino, or a royal Bengal tiger?

The US should treat COVID-19 as a global problem, not simply one of public health in within the US. It is a moral imperative to help Nepal (and other countries), but it also makes sense from the most selfish perspective.

People in the US are celebrating that COVID-19 seems to be at bay. But as the tale in India and other countries shows, early confidence is often undercut by the realities of the virus. The pandemic continues to rage in Nepal, India, other parts of Asia, South America, and Africa.

Widespread infection ignores national boundaries. New variants are not just possible, but inevitable, putting every person on the planet at risk. If we don’t stop the spread, the pandemic can easily return worse than ever in the US. At best it will haunt us for a very long time.

The design kitchen

At my college reunion, I got to visit the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK). This facility provides a space for undergraduate students majoring in STEM fields to “design, prototype and deploy solutions to real-world engineering challenges.”

For example, the University of Malawi Polytechnic Design Studio requested a device to convert plastic water bottles into filaments. These filaments could then be braided into rope or used to make baskets. The device needed to be easily made, using local materials, in Malawi, and cost ~$10.

Another project sought to develop a portable, affordable, and easy to install baby car seat accessory to prevent child fatalities due to heat stroke. Through a system of redundant sensors, the alert notifies a caregiver via visual/auditory alarms and text messages if a loaded car seat is unattended.

One project that caught my interest was to design a feeder for giraffes. The issue was that giraffes become lazy, among other things not exercising their tongues enough. OEDK students designed a feeder that could be raised or lowered via pulleys. Later, I got to see it in action at the zoo. Apparently, most of the giraffes prefer being hand-fed lettuce. However, a shy older one was happiest eating hay from the feeder.

These projects are all good examples of community-based curricula. Problems (and resources) in the community are identified, which lead to a cycle of inquiry. The end result is returned to the community in the form of a solution for the original problem.

Central Zoo

[Note: Click on any photo to enlarge it.]

I had a delightful day at the Central Zoo in Jawalakhel. Despite some problems, the zoo is popular with families. The Friends of Zoo collaborates with 200 schools in Kathmandu Valley. The zoo is working on better enclosures with improved habitats for animals and there’s a recently established Animal Hospital.

I saw one obviously Western couple leaving as I arrived. Otherwise I didn’t notice any Westerners in a visit of well over two hours. They’re missing out.

Posing at the fountain

Posing at the fountain

Himalayan griffon

Himalayan griffon

As much as I’ve enjoyed seeing the multi-starred sites like Patan Durbar Square, there’s nothing like a visit to the zoo for seeing Nepali families enjoying life together in a relaxed fashion. There’s photo taking (both ways) and ample opportunities for casual chats. This gives me a much better sense of the country than seeing some impressive monument.

People watching

As with any zoo, there’s a clear priority on what to see: Plants and physical layout, yes; animals even more; and people best of all. Girls and women were often in beautiful saris and other costumes, perhaps in part because of the holiday (Rama Navami, a spring Hindu festival). Boys and men, including me, were in the obligatory, international male costume of t-shirt and jeans, or other rough pants.

Boating on the central pond

Boating on the central pond

There were groups of pre-school age children, fathers with children, nature lovers, teenagers, old people, visitors from mountain villages, romantic couples, and many more.


Nepal has remarkable changes in elevation and associated variation in eco-climatic conditions. It lies between the tropical Indomalaya ecozone and the temperate Palearctic ecozone. A total of 118 different ecosystems have been identified. All of this leads to Nepal being a biodiversity hotspot, albeit one under severe threats as with biodiversity everywhere on the planet.

Getting organized

Getting organized

Among the notable mammals in Nepal are pangolins, Bengal tiger, one horned rhinoceros, Asiatic elephant, red panda, snow leopard, and Tibetan wolf. There are many reptiles unique to Nepal and over 900 bird species. The Himalayan griffon vulture is is the largest and heaviest bird found in the Himalayas. There are also many unusual fish, invertebrates, and plant life. The red rhododendron grows throughout Nepal and is a national symbol. The zoo houses many of these creatures and seeks to expand its collection, especially of indigenous fauna.


Red panda

Red panda

The zoo has problems related to space, budget, training, and animal care. It reminds me of some zoos I visited when growing up in the US, before funding improved and international zoo standards were enforced. However, after 1995, the National Trust for Nature Conservation took over the zoo and has initiated projects to make it a fully modern zoo, with natural habitats, and facilities for education and research. It’s already become a refuge for live animals being smuggled internationally.

A pigeon, the best animal at the zoo

A pigeon, the best animal at the zoo

Comparing to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago illustrates the challenge for the Central Zoo. It has half the acreage and about 3% of the budget. Even considering purchasing power parity it’s trying to do a lot with little.

Juddha Sumsher J.B. Rana created the zoo in 1932 as a private trophy. He was maharaja and ruled Nepal as head of the Rana dynasty. This explains the two incongruous statues of women standing in prominent positions. One is of his mother and the other of his sister-in-law. The zoo opened to the public in 1956 under various managements. It’s called the “Central Zoo,” even though it’s the only one in Nepal.