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Nepal's Vultures Get a Boost at Their Own Restaurants

Vultures have always had an image problem. But when their numbers plummeted, Nepalese conservationists hit on a novel way to turn feared foe into feathered friends.
Conservation efforts are helping the birds to bounce back from the brink of extinction

Conservation efforts are helping the birds to bounce back from the brink of extinction

Jeewan Magar raises a blood-speckled arm to point out a white-rumped vulture soaring overhead. "I often hear people associate vultures with decay and death," he says. "But after spending almost a decade with the vultures, I think they are valuable and clever creatures." 

"If you treat them with respect, they will in return give you respect and affection," he adds as he finishes up skinning a dead cow. 

Magar hauls the carcass into a forest clearing, and then retreats to a hut a few meters away to watch the show. Towering silk-cotton trees explode into hissing, screeching life, as some hundred vultures descend on their meal. Half an hour later, the carcass has all but disappeared. 

In the 1990s vulture populations collapsed in Nepal

In the 1990s vulture populations collapsed in Nepal

Located in Pokhara, a town in the Gahachowk valley that runs through the foothills of the Himalayas, this is one of Nepal's seven community-run "vulture restaurants." They're contributing to the country's revival of a maligned raptor that had been pushed to the brink of extinction. 

Urgent action as poison threatens vultures' survival

In the 1990s, vulture populations collapsed in Nepal and across the Indian subcontinent. Over two decades, four of the subcontinent's nine vulture species — the white-rumped, slender-billed, red-headed and long-billed vulture — became critically endangered. Scientists said diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory used to treat disease in cattle that can be fatal to scavengers feeding on their carcasses, was likely to blame for pushing them to the brink of extinction.

The Nepalese government reacted by banning diclofenac in 2006. But conservationists said more must be done to help the avian scavengers recover.  

Entrepreneur Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary established the country's first vulture restaurant in Pithauli, a small village on the outskirts of Chitwan National Park, with the help of NGO Bird Conservation Nepal. "The idea behind the reserve is to ensure that vultures get a chance to eat chemical-free cattle carcasses," says Chaudhary.

Jeewan Magar snaps a diner at the vulture restaurant

Jeewan Magar snaps a diner at the vulture restaurant

A sustainable end for sacred cows 

Initially, locals were wary. For one thing, killing cattle is illegal in Nepal, whose national animal is the cow, regarded as sacred by Hindus. "Rumours had it that cows were being slaughtered and fed to the vultures at the restaurant," Chaudhary says.

In fact, the restaurants are a sustainable way to dispose of aging animals.  

You won't see beef on the menu in Nepal. But farmers raise cows for their milk and use them to plough fields. The vulture restaurants buy aging animals that are no longer productive from local farmers

At the Pokhara restaurant, which was established in 2010, four years after the original in Chitwan, these cows graze out their dotage in the forest clearing — under the beady eyes of its feathered guests — until they die of natural causes. Then Magar gets to work, skinning the carcass. The hide is sold to a local craftsman to make leather products. Any bones left once the vultures have had their fill go into poultry feed.

Villagers have found they benefit from eco-tourism the vultures attract

Villagers have found they benefit from eco-tourism the vultures attract

Eco-tourists flock to feedings 

And there are other economic benefits to the vulture restaurants, which don't just attract the scavengers themselves, but tourists who pay a small fee to get a look at them.  

"In this way, villagers have received income directly and indirectly from tourism," says Ramesh Pokharel, a member of the vulture restaurant committee in Gahachowk. "It is a great example of how people cannot only exist but develop and benefit, while conserving and protecting the environment they inhabit."  

Chaudhary says this is what makes Nepal's vulture restaurants special. "There are vulture restaurants across the world," he explains. "But the speciality of the restaurant here is that it is wholly managed by the local community for the sole purpose of conservation."   

Not just Chaudhary's project in Chitwan, but six others that BCN has since established across the country, are run by local volunteers, who also monitor their success by counting the numbers of different vulture species that turn up for feedings.  

With support from international conservation organizations, the Gahachowk vulture restaurant has also supported local beehives, fish and chicken farms and bought pumps for irrigating cropland. 

Local attitudes are slowly changing towards the birds

Local attitudes are slowly changing towards the birds

Vultures get an image update  

These benefits have updated the image of a bird locals once saw as a carrier of disease and harbinger of death. "They used to think vultures are very ugly creatures, they eat dead meat ... people think once they land on the top of the house, it is a bad omen for them," Chaudhary says.  

Getting involved in their conservation has helped communities understand that far from spreading pestilence, vultures efficiently dispose of carrion that could otherwise incubate diseases like rabies and anthrax and contaminate water supplies. 

"People used to say, 'Oh, you were close to a vulture. They are impure, take a shower,'" Pokharel says. "But now the mindset has changed significantly. It's in our interest to invest in vulture conservation."  

Poison is still a threat 

BCN reports that vulture numbers are rising steadily, year on year. And Magar can see the change. "Vultures were a rare sight in Gahachowk a decade ago," he says. "I don't remember seeing so many vultures growing up. But now I just have to look out the windows of my house." 

But it's not all plain sailing. Enforcing the ban on diclofenac has been a challenge and legal anti-inflammatory drugs and other poisons are a threat, too. Last April, 67 vultures were found dead in Chitwan after they fed on the carcasses of stray dogs that had been poisoned, according to local media reports.

Vulture numbers are steadily rising in the region

Vulture numbers are steadily rising in the region

"Even with the ban of diclofenac, the threat is not over yet," says Anisha Pokharel, a conservation biologist in Pokhara. "Medicines that are still in use such as aceclofenac, ketoprofen and nimesulide are also deadly to vultures." 

A bigger push for vulture conservation 

Scientists are working to identify vulture-safe alternatives to diclofenac, and last year Nepal announced plans for a 30,000 square-kilometer vulture safe-zone free of diclofenac and other chemicals.  

Meanwhile, vulture restaurants have been set-up in in several other countries in Asia, Africa, across Europe and in the United States.

"Success depends on collective efforts," says biologist Anisha Pokharel. "Nepal alone cannot revive the birds from extinction. Vultures fly long distances because of their migratory nature. We need coordinated international efforts to protect these endangered species from perishing." 

Edited by Ruby Russell and Holly Young 

Courtesy: DW

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