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Nepal’s vultures get a lift at their own restaurants

Nepal’s vultures get a lift at their own restaurants

Global Ideas | Nepal Artenschutz | Geier

Jeewan Magar raises an arm with blood to point out a white-rumped, soaring vulture. He said, “Vultures are often associated as decay and death.” “But after spending almost a decade with the vultures, I think they are valuable and clever creatures.” 

He says, as he finishes slicing a dead cattle. 

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 was gone. 

Global Ideas | Nepal Artenschutz | Geier

In Nepal, the 1990s saw a collapse in the vulture population.

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 are contributing to the country’s recovery of a highly-ported raptor that was on the verge of extinction. 

Vultures’ survival is at stake if poison is not dealt with immediately

In Nepal and across India, vulture population collapsed in the 1990s. Over the course of two decades, four out of nine subcontinent vulture species, including the long-billed, white-rumped and slender billed vultures, were 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.

In 2006, the Nepalese government banned diclofenac. But conservationists said more must be done to help the avian scavengers recover.  

With the support of NGO Bird Conservation Nepal, Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary, an entrepreneur, established the country’s first restaurant for vultures in Pithauli. This small village is located on the outskirts Chitwan National Park. Chaudhary says that the reserve was created to allow vultures to eat carcasses from cattle that are chemical-free.

Jeewan Magar snaps a diner at the vulture restaurant, Pokhara, Nepal

Jeewan Magar snaps at the vulture restaurant a diner

A sustainable end for sacred cattle 

Initial fears were expressed by locals. One reason was that Nepal’s national animal, the cow, is illegally killed. This cow is sacred to Hindus. Chaudhary claims that rumours suggested that cows were being slaughtered for food and then fed to the vultures in the restaurant.

Restaurants can be used to dispose of old animals in a sustainable manner.  

In Nepal, beef won’t be on the menu. Farmers raise cows to produce milk and then use them to plough the fields. The vulture restaurants purchase aging animals from local farmers who are no longer productive. 

Four years after the original Chitwan restaurant, the Pokhara restaurant was opened in 2010, these cows graze in the forest under the watchful eye of their feathered guests. Magar then gets to work on the carcass, skinning it. The hide is then sold to a local craftman who makes leather products. Once the vultures have finished eating, the bones are used to make poultry feed.

Vulture restaurant, Nepal

Villagers have discovered they can benefit from ecotourism as vultures attract.

Eco-tourists flock for feedings 

There are also other economic benefits to vulture restaurants. They not only attract scavengers but also tourists who pay a small amount to have a look at them.  

Ramesh Pokharel from Gahachowk, a member the vulture restaurant board, said, “In this way villagers have received income direct and indirectly from tourism.” It is a great example of how people can not only exist, but also develop and benefit from the environment they live in.  

Chaudhary believes this is what makes Nepal’s special vulture restaurants. “There are many vulture restaurant around the world,” he says. “But the main feature of this restaurant is that it’s entirely managed by the local communities for conservation.”   

Chaudhary’s Chitwan project is not the only one. Six others that BCN established in the country are also managed by volunteers. They also count the number of different vulture species who show up for feedings.  

International conservation organizations have supported the Gahachowk Vulture Restaurant, which has also purchased pumps to irrigate cropland and supported local beehives, fish, and chicken farms. 

Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary feeds a vulture at the Chitwan vulture restaurant, Nepal

Slowly, local attitudes towards birds are changing

Image update for Vultures  

These benefits have updated the image of a bird locals once saw as a carrier of disease and harbinger of death. Chaudhary says that once they land on top of the house, people used to believe that vultures were ugly and eat dead animals.  

Community involvement in their conservation has helped them understand that vultures are not pestilent and can be used to dispose of carrion, which could incubate disease like rabies or anthrax or contaminate water supplies. 

“People used to say that you were a close relative of vultures. They are impure, take your shower,” Pokharel states. “But now, the mindset has changed significantly. It is in our interests to invest in the conservation of vultures.  

Poison is still a threat 

BCN reports that the number of vultures is steadily increasing year after year. Magar can clearly see the changes. He says, “Vultures were a rare sight at Gahachowk a ten years ago.” “I don’t recall seeing so many vultures growing-up. But now, I just need to look out the windows at my house.” 

But it’s not always easy. It has been difficult to enforce the ban on diclofenac. Legal anti-inflammatory medications and other poisons pose a threat as well. According to local media reports, 67 vultures were found killed in Chitwan last April after eating poisoned carcasses of stray dogs.

Vulture restaurant, Nepal

The region’s vulture population is steadily increasing

Anisha Pokharel is a Pokhara conservation biologist. She says that even though diclofenac has been banned, the threat remains. “Vultures can also be fatally poisoned by medications such as ketoprofen, Aceclofenac, and nimesulide that are still being used.” 

A bigger push for vulture conservation 

Scientists are trying to find safe alternatives to diclofenac for vultures. Last year, Nepal announced plans for a 30,000-kilometer vulture safety-zone that would be free of diclofenac or other chemicals.  

In the meantime, vulture restaurants are being set up in many other countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the United States.

Anisha Pokharel, biologist, states that success is dependent on collective efforts. “Nepal alone can’t save the birds from extinction.” Because of their migratory nature, vultures can fly long distances. We need international coordination to save these endangered species from perish.” 

Edited by Holly Young and Ruby Russell 

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