Jeewan Magar raises a bloodstained arm to signal a white-rumped vulture hovering overhead. “I often hear people associate vultures with decay and death,” he says. “But after spending almost a decade with vultures, I think they are valuable and intelligent creatures.”
“If you treat them with respect, they will give you respect and affection in return,” he adds as he finishes skinning a dead cow.
Magar carries the carcass to a clearing, then retreats to a hut a few yards away to watch the spectacle. Towering silk cotton trees explode into hissing, howling life, as a hundred vultures descend on their meal. Half an hour later, the carcass has practically disappeared.
Located in Pokhara, a town in the Gahachowk Valley that cuts through the foothills of the Himalayas, it is one of seven community-run “vulture restaurants” in Nepal. They are contributing to the country’s rebirth of a maligned raptor that had been pushed to the brink of extinction.
Urgent action as poison threatens vulture survival
In the 1990s, vulture populations collapsed in Nepal and throughout the Indian subcontinent. Within two decades, four of the subcontinent’s nine vulture species – the white-rumped, slender-billed, red-headed and long-billed vulture – have become critically endangered. Scientists said diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat diseases in cattle that can be fatal to scavengers feeding on their carcasses, was likely responsible for pushing them to the brink of extinction.
The Nepalese government responded by banning diclofenac in 2006. But conservationists said more needed to be done to help bird scavengers recover.
Entrepreneur Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary established the country’s first vulture restaurant in Pithauli, a small village on the outskirts of Chitwan National Park, with the help of the NGO Bird Conservation Nepal. “The idea behind the reserve is to make sure the vultures have a chance to eat chemical-free livestock carcasses,” says Chaudhary.
A Lasting End for Sacred Cows
At first, residents were suspicious. On the one hand, killing cattle is illegal in Nepal, whose national animal is the cow, considered sacred by the Hindus. “Rumors were that cows were being slaughtered and fed to the vultures in the restaurant,” Chaudhary says.
In fact, restaurants are a sustainable way to get rid of aging pets.
You won’t see beef on the menu in Nepal. But farmers raise cows for their milk and use them to plow the fields. Vulture restaurants buy aging animals that are no longer productive from local farmers.
At the Pokhara restaurant, which was established in 2010, four years after the original in Chitwan, these cows graze their drivel in the forest glade – under the piercing eyes of its feathered guests – until they die from natural causes. Then Magar gets to work, skinning the carcass. The hide is sold to a local artisan to make leather goods. Any remaining bones after the vultures have had their dose are intended for poultry feed.
Ecotourists flock to feedings
And there are other economic benefits for vulture restaurants, which not only attract the scavengers themselves, but also tourists who pay a small fee to see them.
“In this way, the villagers received income directly and indirectly from tourism,” says Ramesh Pokharel, a member of the Vulture Restaurant committee in Gahachowk. “It’s a great example of how people can not only exist, but also thrive and enjoy it, while conserving and protecting the environment they inhabit.”
Chaudhary says that’s what makes Nepal’s vulture restaurants so special. “There are vulture restaurants all over the world,” he explains. “But the specialty of the restaurant here is that it is entirely run by the local community with the sole purpose of conservation.”
Not only Chaudhary’s project in Chitwan, but six others that BCN has since set up across the country, are run by local volunteers, who also monitor their success by counting the number of different vulture species that show up for to eat.
With the support of international conservation organisations, the Gahachowk vulture restaurant has also supported local beehives, fish and chicken farms and purchased pumps to irrigate farmland.
Vultures get an image update
These benefits have updated the image of a bird that locals once considered a carrier of disease and a harbinger of death. “They used to think vultures were very ugly creatures, they ate dead meat… people think once they land on the roof of the house it’s a bad omen for them,” says Chaudhary.
Getting involved in their conservation has helped communities understand that far from spreading plague, vultures effectively remove carrion that might otherwise incubate diseases like rabies and anthrax and contaminate water supplies.
“People used to say, ‘Oh, you were close to a vulture. They are impure, take a shower, “says Pokharel. “But now the mindset has changed dramatically. It’s in our interest to invest in vulture conservation.”
Poison is always a threat
BCN reports that the number of vultures is increasing steadily, year on year. And Magar can see the change. “Vultures were rare in Gahachowk ten years ago,” he says. “I don’t remember seeing so many vultures growing up. But now I just have to look out the windows of my house.”
But not everything is simple. Enforcing the ban on diclofenac has been a challenge, and legal anti-inflammatories and other poisons are also a threat. Last April, 67 vultures were found dead in Chitwan after feeding on the carcasses of stray dogs that had been poisoned, according to local media.
“Even with the ban on diclofenac, the threat is not yet removed,” says Anisha Pokharel, a conservation biologist in Pokhara. “Drugs still in use such as aceclofenac, ketoprofen and nimesulide are also lethal to vultures.”
Greater effort for vulture conservation
Scientists are working to identify vulture-safe alternatives to diclofenac, and last year Nepal announced plans for a 30,000 square kilometer vulture safety zone free of diclofenac and other chemicals.
Meanwhile, vulture restaurants have been set up in several other countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and the United States.
“Success depends on collective efforts,” says biologist Anisha Pokharel. “Nepal alone cannot revive birds from extinction. Vultures fly long distances due to their migratory nature. We need coordinated international efforts to prevent these endangered species from perishing.”
Edited by Ruby Russell and Holly Young