May 19, 2010 / 4:56 AM / 7 years ago

Carrion restaurants bring Asia vultures back from brink

SIEM PANG, Cambodia (Reuters Life!) - Endangered Asian vulture species are making a comeback thanks to an innovative restaurant chain across Cambodia and that's become the place to be seen for discerning consumers of carrion.

Called simply "vulture restaurants," the eateries have been open since 2004 and, six years later, address the main threat to three species of vultures in Cambodia: limited food availability.

Uncontrolled hunting of wild animals is cited as one reason for the vulture's lack of food. Tighter controls by farmers over livestock that used to roam freely, is another.

In India, the same vulture species have been decimated by the drug diclofenac used to keep livestock healthy but toxic to the birds feeding on the carcasses.

The vulture restaurants were set up by three conservation groups -- Birdlife International and World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Birdlife International says the population of the main three Gyps vulture species in parts of south Asia fell by more than 95 percent in just three years in the 1990s, and are classified as critically endangered.

Initially, one of the major problems was that scientists were unable to work out what was causing them to die off, but now that they've realized that their food was the issue, the vulture restaurants have helped redress that decline.

"The vultures are near extinction and we are trying to preserve them by giving them dead cows or buffalos each month," said Net Norin, a staff member of Birdlife International.

The animal carcasses are left at certain sites for the vultures to feed on. Each site is supervised by rangers who monitor the vultures' progress each month.

And these rangers say they've seen an increase in the number of vultures since the preservation project began six years ago, with 286 birds in June 2009, up from 140 in 2004.

"The numbers have increased and the villagers received a lot of knowledge about preserving the vultures because they see more and more tourists coming to visit this area which they benefit from," said Pich Bunnat from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The vultures' nesting colonies are also protected, with local community members receiving a payment at the end of each month if vultures' nests remain active.

The vulture population across south Asia has been in decline for decades. In India, the decline is largely attributed to diclofenac, used in mammals as an analgesic and antipyretic but which is toxic to vultures.

The drug, however, is not used in Cambodia, which conservationists believe will give them a boost in their attempts to preserve the three main species - the White-rumped vulture, the Slender-billed vulture and the Red-headed vulture.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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