By Julie Shaw
If you’re a hungry vulture, or a person with an appetite for rare bird watching, there’s a new restaurant in Gaindahwa Tal, Nepal that might be perfect for you.
With support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) has teamed up with the community at Gaindahwa Tal to develop a community-managed “vulture restaurant,” where Critically Endangered vulture species are fed.
The vultures in the region are in desperate need of a food supply free of diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug that is frequently used on livestock. It has been taking a disastrous toll on several vulture species, causing kidney failure in exposed birds. Vulture populations in Nepal, India and Pakistan have undergone declines of more than 97 percent for four species — the white-rumped, slender-billed, red-headed and long-billed vultures — since the mid-1990s, according to BCN. Its studies show a decline of white-rumped vulture population in Nepal to be just over 90 percent from 1995 to 2009.
The decline is not only a threat to these species, but also to the people of the affected regions.
“[Vultures] are the most efficient disposal mechanism of carcasses in South Asia,” said Anand Chaudhary, vulture conservation officer with BCN. “Their loss would not only lead to increase in economic costs in disposal but would also lead to pollution of air, water and soil as well as possibility of increased threat of diseases like rabies, plague and anthrax from secondary scavengers like dogs, rats and wild carnivores.”
BCN’s vulture restaurants, also known as vulture safe zones, are established near existing vulture colonies and provide a source of healthy food for the birds by doubling as sort of retirement homes for cattle. Most Nepalis revere cows, and killing them is illegal. Once they have lived past their productivity as dairy animals, the cows can prove to be a burden for many Nepalis. The restaurant offers cow owners a place to send their elderly cattle where the animals can live out their days in a natural manner while being well cared for. The restaurant collects the cows and makes sure they are free of diclofenac. Once the animals pass on, they become food for the vultures.
The Gaindahwa Tal operation was established with help from a CEPF small grant. BCN has since secured a larger grant from CEPF to expand its work into eastern Nepal. Its plan is to ensure that vultures receive safe food across the wider geographical range. Other supporters for their work include the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and WWF.
BCN consulted with, and got permission from, the community in Gaindahwa Tal to establish the project. In fact, a few community members approached BCN first with the idea to bring such a project to their area. It has an 11-member management committee with representatives from various community groups participating. They make decisions related to the restaurant’s operations and help raise awareness about the operation within the community.
Balaram Adhikari, coordinator of the management committee, said he joined the group because of his interest in providing leadership on conservation matters. “Conservation is always there in the hearts of the people,” he said.
The project has brought changes to his community. “People are very happy because the community is being highlighted in national media because of the vultures and we have increasing numbers of visitors and tourists arriving.” He also cited the training and assistance BCN is providing to the community in livelihoods development, including beekeeping and candle making. The organization buys these products and offers them at the restaurant sites for the tourists BCN hopes to lure.
“There is also a feeling that if the community gets organized we can work together for the betterment of our community,” said Adhikari.
Tourists and researchers can watch the vultures feed from an enclosed viewing building near the feeding site. Feeding time can draw dozens of vultures of multiple species.
The community receives revenue through entrance fees and from the sale of the bones, skin and manure left behind.
Monitoring the vultures is also part of the program, and a small group of community members are trained to lend a hand in keeping track of the birds and their breeding success in a nearby colony.
Meanwhile, BCN is working directly with veterinarians to inform them of alternatives to using diclofenac. The chemical has been banned in Nepal and India, but some veterinarians still use it. Once the use of diclofenac ends and vulture species are recovering, the restaurants will cease operation. BCN hopes the communities will be able to continue with ecotourism, however.
Chaudhary said the campaign to help vultures is already paying off. Veterinary practitioners in the area, local government and community elders have promised to keep their area free of diclofenac, a promise made during the first International Vulture Awareness Day on Sept. 5, 2009.
The growing number of vultures feeding at the restaurant is also promising. “The highest number of vultures seen on a carcass in Nepal for over six years has been recorded here — 282,” Chaudhary said. “Similarly, the number of nests at a site nearby has remained stable since the establishment of the restaurant, and we have discovered a new colony with 17 nests in a different location this year.”