Sat, Nov 03, 2007 - Page 16 News List

Guess who's coming to dinner

Nepalese environmentalists have opened a vulture restaurant to provide threatened birds with untainted meat

AFP, NAWALPARASI, NEPAL

Vultures in the wild feed on a dead buffalo provided by a conservation group that is trying to prevent the scavengers from eating poisonous carrion.

PHOTO: AFP

With their beady eyes, sharp talons and relentless search for the dying or the dead, vultures are not exactly a staple of conservationist fund-raising literature. But a scheme in Nepal to create a restaurant for the birds - whose numbers have been decimated by a powerful drug given to livestock that the birds ingest when they eat the dead animals - is slowly helping the vulture population recover.

The scheme is also helping change perceptions in the Himalayan nation of the once-reviled scavenger. A decade ago, an estimated 300,000 vultures cruised the Nepali skies. Today only around 1,000 birds remain.

The culprit is Diclofenac, a painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug commonly administered to cattle, a mainstay of the vultures' diet.

"Studies have found that vultures feeding on carcasses treated with Diclofenac died of kidney failure within 24 hours," said Hem Sagar Baral, a Nepali ornithologist with Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) who came up with the idea of a restaurant where the birds could eat uncontaminated carrion.

"Vultures used to be very common, but more than 95 percent of the total population both in Nepal and on the Indian subcontinent have been lost in just over a single decade," said Baral.

Similar schemes have already been run successfully in South Africa and Europe, but the Nepali project is unique as it is being driven by the local community rather than by professional conservationists.

Since early this year, BCN has been offering to buy terminally sick cattle for US$3 each. The dying animals are then taken to the restaurant's farm in a community-owned forest where they are treated, if needed, with another, vulture-friendly painkiller.

In Hindu-majority Nepal, cows are considered sacred and killing them is strictly prohibited.

Previously, sick cows would be sold to traders who took them across the nearby border to officially secular India where they were killed for meat. The BCN reputedly treats the dying cows better than the Indian meat traders and keeps the ailing animals until they die of natural causes.

Once the carcasses are declared free of Diclofenac, they are skinned to make them easier for the vultures to eat and taken to a spot in the jungle where the birds come to feed.

"Our objective is to provide uncontaminated food to vultures to save them from becoming extinct," Tila Bhusal, secretary of the restaurant management committee said in Nawalparasi district, 120km southwest of Kathmandu.

As well as providing a place where the birds can get clean meat, BCN has successfully campaigned for the veterinary painkiller to be banned in Nepal.

"We banned Diclofenac in 2006 for the sake of vultures as we came to know that this drug was the major cause behind the sharp decline in their numbers," said Santosh K.C., an official with Nepal's Department of Drug Administration.

And with the help of Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the BCN has also set up a system through which local farmers and vets can swap Diclofenac for an alternative that does not kill vultures.

The scheme still has a long way to go, but organizers believe it is a good start. "What we are doing is just the tip of the iceberg, we know we need to do a lot more to save Nepal's eight vulture species," said ornithologist Baral. "Eventually we hope to set up more vulture restaurants and build observation towers and visitor centers."

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