Nepal’s vultures — decimated by medicine fed to the livestock they call dinner — are making a comeback thanks to their own chain of healthy-eating restaurants.
The drug-free diners have been set up across the country over the last four years to counter the use of diclofenac, a painkiller commonly administered to the cattle that are a mainstay of the scavengers’ diet.
The latest, launched last year near the Annapurna mountain range in central Nepal, has led to a five-fold increase in the local population of the critically endangered bird, according to figures unearthed by my AFP colleague Deepak Adhikari this week.
See his story published by AFP on October 26 here.
Before the turn of the century, an estimated 300,000 vultures cruised the Nepali skies, but scientific studies say their numbers declined by more than 90 percent in just a few years.
Vultures feeding on carcasses treated with diclofenac die of kidney failure, often within 24 hours, says Bird Conservation Nepal.
Let’s face it – vultures aren’t the best loved species in the bird kingdom. Intrinsically linked as they are with death, the sight of this falconiformes circling above is about as welcome as a visit by the Grim Reaper at a nursing home.
And there is something distinctly unvirtuous about the idea of picking on the bones of the carcass of some poor soul which has met its end. Better the ferocious majesty of the eagle which swoops, kills and deserves its prey than the slavering shadenfreude of the vulture.
Even its name has become a staple insult in the English language to describe someone who benefits from another’s misfortune.
So should we not celebrate its demise? Well, no.
The loss of a major scavenger – apart from being a zoological tragedy – is bad news for all of us.
In Nepal the demise of the vulture has led to a rise in rotting carcasses and a consequent increase in feral dogs and the spread of disease.
Yes, vultures are… well… vultures - but they also do a good job in protecting us from rabies, anthrax and tuberculosis.
BCN came up with the idea of “restaurants” where the birds could eat uncontaminated carrion, the latest of them set up in Kaski district.
In Hindu-majority Nepal, cows are considered sacred and killing them is strictly prohibited.
BCN buys old and terminally ill cattle and takes the animals to the restaurants’ farms in community-owned forests where they are treated, if needed, with another, vulture-friendly painkiller.
They are allowed to die naturally and, once declared free of diclofenac, are skinned and taken to nearby jungle where they are left out to become the vultures’ main course.
With around 860 bird species in a landscape that varies from fertile, semi-tropical plains to snowy Himalayan peaks, Nepal is a paradise for bird watchers.
It now has six vulture restaurants, and BCN says one project set up two years ago at Gaidahawa Lake, in the southern Terai plains, has seen numbers increase from fewer than 40 to as high as 282 at meal times.