Nepal's vulture "restaurants" for endangered birds

Tue Feb 7, 2012 7:07am EST
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By Gopal Sharma

PITHAULI, Nepal (Reuters) - In the village of Pithauli, surrounded by ripening mustard fields, a woman hauls a cow carcass on a trolley, drops it in an open field, then runs and hides in a nearby hut as dozens of vultures swoop down.

In under half an hour, the carcass has been reduced to picked bones by the dun-colored birds, occasionally squabbling as they feed.

The site is one of a handful of vulture "restaurants" opened to save the birds, which help keep the environment clean by disposing of carrion, from extinction -- and at the same time help impoverished villages become self-sufficient.

A drug called diclofenac, used for treating inflammation in cattle, causes kidney failure and death in vultures which feed on their carcasses. As a result, two species of vulture -- the White-rumped and Slender-billed -- are now critically endangered in Nepal, as well as in Pakistan and India.

"If the situation continues the two species will be extinct in ten years," said Hem Sagar Baral, chief of the Nepalese Ornithological Union.

"We may maintain certain minimum numbers but we'll never see the numbers we had 20 years ago."

Two decades ago there were about 50,000 nesting pairs of the two vulture species in Nepal. Now, barely 500 pairs remain.

Their steep decline is blamed on the widespread use of diclofenac, which was banned in 2006, and loss of habitat, with the kapok trees they use for nesting vanishing fast to meet demand from factories producing match sticks and plywood.   Continued...

<p>Vultures battle for a cow carcass as they feed at a vulture restaurant in Nawalparasi, southwest of Kathmandu February 2, 2012. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar</p>