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Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Vulture Restaurant

It’s only 20km away but it’s taken us 2 hours to get here, the early start, the amoeba in my stomach, and skipping breakfast has made the motorbike journey tough, but it’s the overnight rains that really slowed progress on Ramji Gautam’s motorbike. The only road that leads to the site of the Vulture Feeding Sanctuary is completely washed out.

For much the tough uphill parts of the journey I’ve had to walk up following the Yamaha scrambling over shale, pebbles and small streams that continue to erode what’s left of the track. In the dry season the road is fine Ramji assures me, small consolation to my sweat ridden body. His effervescent enthusiasm pervades every inconvenience in a way which is characteristically Nepali, and it’s hard not to be drawn into giggling at how close to collapse I am.

It’s at that moment we spot a couple of Egyptian Vultures above us. When perched, their hunched neck gives them a sinister demeanour in keeping with their reputation of untrustworthy carrion eaters. But after an ungraceful launch, once in flight, these birds are the most majestic in the sky. Their wings, stretching up to two metres across, lock into the perfect aerodynamic form, able to take advantage rising air currents with the smallest adjustment of the splayed feathers at the tips and a twist of their fanned tail. Their sizeable weight effortlessly circles up through the mountain terrain, able to cover distance faster and quicker than any other animal as they search quietly for food. Not killing for meat makes vultures one of nature’s few ethical carnivores, and their role in picking clean carcasses prevents the spread of disease in other species, including humans. None the less the unfair Machiavellian reputation persists.

It’s a good job this route is usually easier, because the “Vulture Restaurant”, as Ramji calls it, conjuring images napkined diners tucking silver forks into a vulture soufflé, plans to become self funding by bringing in tourists to watch the birds feeding. Numbers of the enormous and regal White Rumped Vulture have been decreasing over recent years, and the drop is largely attributed to the use of Diclofenac, a miracle anti-inflammatory used by local farmers to cure sick cattle.

On the occasions when the Oxen fails to recover, and dies with Diclofenac in its system, the meat is a toxic cocktail to the vultures that feed on the carcasses left out to be picked clean. The feeding sanctuary has been set up next to a small village near Pokhara, with donations from conservation groups and individuals to provide a safe source of food, to allow the population to recover. Local farmers have been encouraged to use alternatives to Diclofenac, and old cattle is bought for100 rupees (US$1.30) and brought to die in the specially selected area where vultures can feel unthreatened as they tuck in.

Oxen used to pull ploughs, and cows that provide milk, become an expensive burden once they are too old to work, so the farmers are pleased to sell them to the project in a country where the Hindu religion prevents slaughtering the sacred animals.

The Pokhara valley, where the sanctuary is based, is one of the last habitats where the birds can be found in any number according to Brad Sander, a record setting paraglider pilot, who last year flew the width of Nepal and says he didn’t see a single White Rumped vulture until he arrived in Pokhara, half way through his journey.

This anecdotal evidence is largely backed up by the research performed in Bird Conservation Nepal, which shows that White Rumped numbers have declined by 90% in Nepal over the last 11 years. The Royal Society for Protection of Birds has tracked vultures migrating 1000km in a week, happily moving along the Himalaya between Nepal, India and Pakistan, and the drop in numbers is even higher in the studies performed in India.

One reason that the Pokhara valley might be a relatively safe haven for the White Rump, and therefore an ideal site for the sanctuary, is that the local farmers prefer traditional organic cures for their cattle, largely unaware of Diclofenac unless it’s prescribed by a vet. The drug has now been banned for use in cattle thanks to lobbying work by conservation bodies in all the countries where the White Rumpe flies, however its cheapness and efficacy means its use persists illegally in places.

I ask Hari Datta Pokharel, chairman of the village committee set up to administer the sanctuary, what he thinks about foreigners giving money to protect vultures, which in Nepal have the same evil reputation as elsewhere. He tells me that having seen the birds feeding during the pilot stages of the sanctuary he has grown to admire and respect the birds. It’s true that a flock of birds using their wings to wrestling over the meat of a carcass, digging their necks into the heart of it, their heads bathed in drying blood as their sharpened beaks claw away lumps of red flesh, accompanied by the smell of rotting meat and guts filling the air, is a sight to inspire respect. But I would be more convinced if Hari had told me that as long as the project brings in the tourist dollars it promises, he’s happy to feed them old cows.

Ramji believes that other reasons may also be contributing the declining numbers. For several years he’s been studying vultures, performing counts, decoding their behaviour and surveying farmers’ attitudes towards them. His unique expertise is recognised by the university where he lectures as well as the conservation groups that ask him to advise on their projects. The increasing rural population according to Ramji has meant there is less space to dispose of carcasses safely without risking the spread of disease through rats and mice that also feed on the decaying flesh. Health education programmes are advising farmers to bury dead cattle rather than leave them to be cleaned by the birds. Less food means fewer birds, and the larger White Rumped, which need the most food, is perhaps the first to feel this effect. The smaller Red Headed Vulture have also declined in number but not as dramatically as the White Rumped.

Beyond the village is the sanctuary site. I’m faced with a walk down and then back up a 100m cliff. At the bottom I’m shown the cattle shed and the observation hide the villagers have built with the donated money. There are also the bony remains of 3 carcasses, and the dead body of a cow which died just 2 days earlier. The villagers have given over these five hectares of hard to farm land for the sanctuary, bordered on one side by a fast flowing river bend, and on the other by the cliff. On the far side are some old cows grazing, while villagers collect grass and wood around them. I’m panting for breath with every step, looking for a rock to sit on every time we stop. I apologise to Ramji that my stomach bug is slowing me down and he asks if I’ve taken any drugs for it. Not yet. I laugh nervously, realising me that I’ve just passed the sanctuary’s criteria for vulture lunch.

In six weeks the project will officially open its doors, with national and international guests, including key scientists invited to see the facilities, Robi Pokharel, the hands on co-ordinator tells me. His enthusiasm for the project seems more heartfelt than the chairman’s, and he makes no secret of the fact that he wants this to work to bring money into his village.

There are still a few jobs to do over the next week, he tells me in flawless English. The plastering around the observation hide needs to be finished off, along with storm drainage. They need to plumb in a water supply for the visitors, and they have to clear a path to transport the carcasses from the grazing area where they die, to the feeding area. Moving a dead cow over the rocky grassland by hand is no small task and if the carcasses aren’t in the feeding area, not only will the birds feel less comfortable coming to feed, but the tourists in the observation hide won’t be able to see them. Robi tells me he needs a camera so they can photograph the vultures show absent supporters how well the scheme is working.

To the casual observer, there is another problem. The old cattle are feeding on great pasture land, irrigated by the mineral rich glacial river, and far from keeling over after a hard life, they seem to be thriving in retirement. None the less in the four months during construction and pilot stage four cows have already died and been fed to the birds and the heard of fresh meat waiting it’s turn has grown to seven.

Ramji estimates that the meat from one cow would be enough to feed the vulture population for a month, but the birds can’t go a month between feeds and there is no obvious way to butcher or store the meat. The carcasses can remain unnoticed for a few days before the vultures come to feed, and then the feeding is all over in a day. The tight schedule of tourists wanting to see vultures feeding will be tough to co-ordinate with the natural death of a cow and the eagle eye of a hungry vulture. But the project supporters include Scott Mason a falconer, who runs Parahawking, a successful tourist business using trained vultures in Pokhara. His expertise and contacts in the local tourism industry will be crucial in developing the marketing and logistics of the tourist visits.

During our visit Ramji picks over the bones of a carcass pointing out a couple of broken ones. Vultures scrape the bones clean, everything goes, the sinew, the tendons, the fat. All that’s left is the stomach contents, the pristine white bones and the skin which can be sold to leatherworkers, while the bones can be used to make cutlery handles. But vultures don’t break bones when they eat. Dogs and Jackals do that, and unlike vultures, they spread diseases to humans. There’s a risk that if the project is not carefully managed, it could end up feeding the wrong predator.

The sight of a couple of dog-gnawed bones isn’t enough to worry Ramji, and these are precisely the sort of teething troubles which the pilot stage is designed to flush out. The model of using tourism to sustain a conservation project is keeping everyone, the villagers, the donors, and the conservationists motivated, and that gives the project a great chance of rewarding their efforts, and setting an example which could be replicated elsewhere.

When Sita, the wife of the Hindu god Rama was kidnapped, a vulture tried to stop the villains who cut off its wings. When Rama couldn’t find Sita the vulture told him what had happened. As a thank you Rama blessed vultures with the ability to regenerate and 1000 years of life. Ramji tells me that villagers often ask him if vultures, Giddha in Nepali, can really live that long. If this project can be made sustainable it could help regenerate the dwindling vulture population and give the species a chance to live as long as their mythical lifespan.

1 comment:

  1. Richard Cuthbert of the RSPB adds;

    ..."One last thing, it might be good to say that Bird Conservation Nepal and the government of Nepal are working together to conserve vultures and that similar programmes are in place in India and Pakistan. This includes Vutlure Conservation Breeding Centres (including one in Chitwan National Park, Nepal) where birds are kept and breeding and where we plan to release these birds and their progeny in the future (and once the environment is free from diclofenac). There has just been a couple of online stories about the latest breeding efforts in India (see and"


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