Nepal "health food joint" boosts vulture numbers
By Gopal Sharma
KATHMANDU (Reuters) - The number of rare vultures in one of Nepal's few conservation sites has nearly doubled after a special feeding facility started serving drug-free, safe carcasses to the birds, a leading conservation group said.
Scientists say the survival of vultures eating dead cattle treated with the anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, was threatened in South Asia because the drug poisoned the scavenging birds.
Diclofenac was found responsible for the decline of two species -- White-rumped and Slender-billed vultures -- from Nepal and the region, a leading local conservation group, Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN), said.
In a drive to protect vultures by offering them health food, the group opened what it calls a "restaurant" for the birds last year in Nawalparasi district in southwest Nepal where sick and old cattle not treated with diclofenac are kept.
After their death, these animals are offered as chemical-free, safe food to vultures.
BCN said the effort had paid off and the number of the nesting pairs of vultures in Nawalparasi reached 32 in 2007 from a mere 17 in 2005.
"The restaurant has definitely contributed to this increase," the group's conservation officer Dev Ghimire said.
"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."
Ghimire said his group, which has launched an awareness campaign among villagers to conserve the bird, is planning to open more such feeding centers in Rupandehi, Kapilvastu and Dang districts, further west of Nawalparasi, which also have vultures.
Use of diclofenac is not allowed in Nepal but conservationists say the ban is largely ignored.
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.
Ghimire said the numbers were still declining and nests were vulnerable to habitat destruction.
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)