image: photographer Nick Tudor
Vulture numbers have plummeted catastrophically in south Asia since the 1990s. Scientists were flummoxed by the mysterious mass die-off of the scavenging birds until researchers linked the deaths to vultures eating dead cattle treated with the anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, in 1994.
The scientists found that small doses of the drug, given to cattle to treat injury, caused kidney damage and death in vultures. Use of diclofenac is not allowed in Nepal, but conservationists say the ban is largely ignored. As a result, the population of vultures in mountainous Nepal is estimated to have dipped to only about 500 nesting pairs – down from about 50,000 in 1990.
In a drive to protect the vultures, the group opened what it calls a “restaurant” for the birds last year in the Nawalparasi district in southwest Nepal, where sick and old cattle not treated with diclofenac are available. After the cattles’ death, they are offered as “drug-free”, safe food to vultures.
“The ‘restaurant’ has definitely contributed to this increase,” says the group’s conservation officer Dev Ghimire. “Nesting is declining in other areas where there are no such facilities. But here they are getting safe food which is why the numbers have gone up.”
The BBC recently reported an area of India opening a vulture restaurant. Soon there could be a chain.