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Kathmandu Is Cowed By Abandoned Cattle

Taking advantage of the post-earthquake chaos, farmers in the Kathmandu region are abandoning unwanted cattle in record numbers.
Donatella Lorch for NPR
Taking advantage of the post-earthquake chaos, farmers in the Kathmandu region are abandoning unwanted cattle in record numbers.

In post-earthquake Kathmandu, it is now cows and calves that are a problem.

Stray ones that is.

Hundreds have taken over the streets, casually strolling or curled up in the middle of the road, oblivious of their traffic-aggravating role amid the cacophony of buses, trucks, motorcycles and cars trying to avoid them.

The stray bovines aren't exactly a novelty. Farmers have a habit of turning loose old or sick cows and bull calves, which have no financial value (artificial insemination is increasingly in use). The owners should be fined, but they're usually not.

But now city officials say the number of wandering bovines is the highest in years and is directly related to the April earthquake and its many aftershocks. Taking advantage of post-earthquake chaos, farmers in Kathmandu's outskirts are abandoning their cows and especially their bull calves, which make up the majority of the wandering bovines.

In the past, stray cattle have been handled in various ways. Some find shelter in a small fenced-in area within the confines of Pashupatinath Temple, one of the world's holiest Shiva shrines. Their food is financed by devotees' donations. (Cows are holy for Hindus, and it is a crime to kill a cow in Nepal — but because it is a secular country eating beef is legal.)

These bovines, oblivious to the traffic of Kathmandu, appear to be best buddies.
/ Donatella Lorch for NPR
Donatella Lorch for NPR
These bovines, oblivious to the traffic of Kathmandu, appear to be best buddies.

In addition, the government rounds up several hundred cattle each year, selling them at auction.

The black market scoops up other abandoned cattle to be butchered in the Chinese border town of Kodari. The meat is sold to Tibetan businessmen.

Since the earthquake, the government has been too busy building shelters and assisting in the demolition of damaged buildings to round up stray animals.

"There are more important matters at hand now than managing stray cattle," Dhanapati Sapkota, chief of Kathmandu Metropolitan Enforcement and Implementation Department, told the Himalayan Times.

And the cattle black market is out of business. The road to the border is blocked by landslides and the border is closed. Kodari is a ghost town that was flattened by massive rock slides.

Now some of the cows and calves die on the street from drawn-out malnutrition, from eating plastic and from dehydration — and from being hit by vehicles. City workers pick up the carcasses and dump them on the banks of one of Kathmandu's heavily polluted rivers.

"It is sad watching all these cows and calves get sick and starve," says Keshav Shiwakoti, who has lived in Kathmandu for more than 25 years. "People here have trouble taking care of themselves, and it might work better if the government dealt with the farmers before the animals end up on the street."

Like the 20,000-plus stray dogs that also roam the streets of Kathmandu, the cows and bulls are territorial. I recognize most of them on my usual driving routes and worry about them if I don't spot them regularly.

My 10-year-old son has nicknamed all the male calves "Ferdinand" (Ferdie for our favorite ones) after the peace-loving bull in Munro Leaf's children's tale Ferdinand the Bull. Down the street from our house, a well-fed, tan Ferdie lives at the foot of a huge wooden festival chariot, home to a Hindu and Buddhist deity, and gets regular nibbles from the worshipping devotees.

Then there are two inseparable friends, one completely black, the other brown with white spots, that usually lie in the middle of an intersection used by smoke-belching quarry trucks. Even from my moving car, I can count their jutting ribs. They move in slow motion or lie immobile, their bodies touching. They ignore the street's all-enveloping traffic and the bursts of black exhaust that coat them.

They and hundreds of their bovine companions are unwanted citizens of Kathmandu.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Donatella Lorch