Thursday, 24 January 2013

Dining at the Vulture Restaurant

by Tim Harris

It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m sitting in a covered trench in pitch darkness. Beside me, Neil crouches behind his enormous lens, waiting for the first indications of a new day. The odour of rotting flesh wafts through the screen in front of us, not too bad but enough to remind us that the previous day the carcass of a cow was dumped on the ground a few metres away. Time moves slowly and we’re careful not to make a sound.

6:00 and the whoosh of a very large bird passes directly overhead. I risk parting the reedy screen and notice the sky has lightened by a few degrees. The silhouettes of several vultures loom in the top of a tree and several of these giants are already jostling with each other on the ground, just 30 metres away. I’ve never had a problem watching others eat but this is very special. Yesterday afternoon the vultures had been investigating how best to gain access to the deceased bovine’s best joints. Clearly that is no longer an issue since the animal has been reduced to a pile of bones and offal.

As the sun comes up, the diners’ identities are revealed. Most are Indian White-backed Vultures but there are a handful of Red-headed with their strangely perplexed expressions. The latter seem to spend most of their time standing around, doing very little but they are clearly one step up in the pecking order. Then there are the Slender-bills with their black snakelike necks, perfect for going deep inside any dead animal. It is quickly clear that they get what they want. The others back away when they hiss out a warning. Screams, hisses, the sound of wings flapping ... this is the accompaniment to the end game as bones are stripped of their last morsels of flesh.

Apart from their love of carrion, these vultures are united by one thing: their extreme rarity. The 60-odd birds we are watching represent a significant proportion of the world’s population of each species. All are classified as Critically Endangered, and extinction is now a real threat. It was not always so but vulture populations have crashed catastrophically since the 1990s, down by as much as 99 percent, due to the treatment of cattle with Diclofenac. If populations exist at all, they are now disjointed. 

The drug was never used in Cambodia and only on the northern plains of that country are the vultures holding their own or even increasing in numbers, largely thanks to a series of ‘vulture restaurants’ where geriatric cows are slaughtered on a regular basis to provide a supplementary food source. The Sam Veasna Center (sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society) works with village communities in this part of the country to encourage them to engage with their local wildlife. Visiting birders and photographers pay for the privilege of witnessing sights like these and the cash goes into the hands of the villagers who provide the carrion. To be fed and guided by local villagers, who also maintain the hides is an inspirational experience. Families gain extra income; villages are able to fund water pumps, schools and roads; the community is actively involved in conservation. Everyone benefits. This is a magnificent model for sustainable conservation and ecotourism, one that should be adopted elsewhere. 

For more information on the work of the Sam Veasna Center see   

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