People In Nepal Used To Think Vultures Were Bad Luck. Not Anymore

People In Nepal Used To Think Vultures Were Bad Luck. Not Anymore
  1. People In Nepal Used To Think Vultures Were Bad Luck. Not Anymore
    The number of vultures in South Asia has plummeted. But "restaurants" to feed rescued chicks and wild vultures are good for the birds — and for the local e…

A Himalayan griffon vulture. The population of vultures in Nepal dropped by 99 percent in a decade. Mary Plage/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Mary Plage/Getty Images

A Himalayan griffon vulture. The population of vultures in Nepal dropped by 99 percent in a decade.

Mary Plage/Getty Images

Three boys walk through a community forest in the village of Pithauli in southern Nepal. One kicks a soccer ball, the other two carry a goat leg in each hand.

They're on their way to feed vulture chicks orphaned after a recent hailstorm.


Saving Vultures With Nepal's 'Vulture Restaurant'

Saving Vultures With Nepal's 'Vulture Restaurant'

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Vulture "restaurants" have sprung up in Nepal over the past decade to offer safe food to the endangered birds, which lost more than 99 percent of their species population over about a decade. The restaurants house and raise rescued vulture babies — and also offer food to wild vultures.

Vulture restaurants are not new. The first ones emerged in Europe in the 1970s, when vulture populations there started dying out due to habitat loss and lack of food. Nepal launched its first in 2006, and the country now has seven — including the one in Pithauli.

Nepal is home to nine different species of vulture, four of which are critically endangered.

"It's one of the fastest declines that we've ever seen in a species before," says Natasha Peters from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a British organization that largely funds the Pithauli vulture restaurant.

What lead to the decline?

Vulture "restaurants" in Nepal provide safe food for the endangered species of vultures there. Danielle Preiss for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Danielle Preiss for NPR

Vulture "restaurants" in Nepal provide safe food for the endangered species of vultures there.

Danielle Preiss for NPR

Peters says scientists think the decimation is from an anti-inflammatory drug used in cows, called diclofenac.

Birds that have eaten carcasses of cows laced with the drug have died of kidney failure. In countries with a Hindu majority like India and Nepal, people don't eat beef, and there's not much of an animal disposal system. So when cows used for dairy or plowing die, they're left until vultures take over.

Vultures play a crucial role in sanitation, clearing bacteria and disease with the carcasses they consume. Peters says that in India the incidence of rabies even went up when vulture numbers started to drop. The wild dog population boomed with less competition for carrion from the scavenging birds. More wild dogs led to higher rates of rabies.

Diclofenac was banned in Nepal, India and Pakistan in 2006. But by that time the vultures were on the verge of extinction, and it would take years before the drugs were out of the environment.

So Nepal started gathering vulture chicks from the wild as a last ditch effort to save them in captivity. The organization Bird Conservation Nepal started a breeding center in 2008, where they hoped to keep the species alive until they could safely return birds to the wild.

"We had that breeding center because we thought they'll be completely wiped out from the earth," says D.B. Chaudary. He volunteers with Bird Conservation Nepal and is the man in Pithauli everyone credits with running the restaurant.

"Actually this is managed by the community, no one is from outside," Chaudary says. A 16-member board, made up of people from the community, makes all the decisions for the restaurant. Chaudary, the board's director, says he was enamored with the birds from a young age. But it took time to convince his neighbors to feel the same way.

"They used to think vultures are very ugly creatures, they eat dead meat — and also some other reasons like people they think once they land on the top of the house it is very bad luck for them," he says.

Villager Sunita Musahar, standing outside church Saturday morning, says: "Before dads, grandpas used to say, 'Oh, you touched a vulture! Don't sit in this house, take a shower and then come inside.' You mustn't touch vultures, they eat cows, they used to say," she explains.

But now vultures are boosting the local economy. Tourists come to see them at the "restaurants" and pay a fee — 500 rupees (about $5) for foreigners, 50 rupees for domestic tourists. So people have changed their minds. The community boards members for the restaurant hope tourism will bring much needed money into the community — and that there will be other benefits from a growing appreciation of vultures.

Villagers used to graze their cattle in the community forest, but the overgrazing was depleting the grass and destroying the habitat of vultures and other creatures. So, Musahar says, the community enforced a grazing ban themselves.

"We'd carry our babies and take turns guarding the jungle," she says.

Now, there's an officially managed grazing rotation in place, and the villagers can afford to hire guards by selling grass, wood and other products from the forest.

To get villagers to be more receptive to vulture conservation, the restaurant has supported small livelihood projects, like cooperatively run fish ponds. Mushar and 25 other families jointly manage four ponds and share the profits of 150,000 rupees (about $1,460) a month. Musahar sends her kids to school with the money — a chance she said she never got — and she hopes it will set her kids up for an easier life.

"If …

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