A Vulture Restaurant?
That sounds interesting. Would I like to go? Of course!! But how do they cook the vultures? Is the meat tough? Doesn’t that go against our nature conservation principle? This short conversation triggered a memorable journey to Nepal with fellow birding enthusiasts.
Indeed “Vulture Restaurant” is a conservation program. Nepal had more than a million vultures in the 1980s. According to a 2018 survey their population dwindled to about 20,000. Scientists and bird conservationists have attributed the cause of the decline to Diclofenac, a pain-killer that’s given to aging cattle. When vultures feed on the carcasses of these cattle they ingest the Diclofenac, which result in kidney damage to these birds and causing the vulture’s head to droop/hang. Subsequently these vultures cannot feed and eventually starve to death. Vulture restaurants are set up by bird conservation NGOs to provide safe food to save the vultures from extinction.
Our Birding Team waits patiently for Majestic arrivals across the skies
A birding adventure in Nepal …
Our birding party traveled to the village of Ghachock, some 13 kms north west of Pokhara. Our guide, Mr. Surya Gurung, led us to the conservation site popularly known as “Jatayu Restaurant”. This “restaurant” lies along the Seti River within the Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal’s largest Bird and Biodiversity site. From the hide we witnessed firsthand, vultures feeding on a skinned carcass. The whole carcass was reduced to a pile of bones after a 30 mins feeding frenzy. Four different species of vultures were recorded: White Rumped, Red Headed, Slender Billed and the Himalayan Griffon.
The Egyptian vulture, also called the white scavenger vulture or pharaoh’s chicken, is a small Old World vulture and the only member of the genus Neophron.
The following day Mr. Surya guided us to a dumpsite where we found many scavenging Egyptian Vultures. This is the smallest vulture species found in Nepal. The visit to the dumpsite was an eye opener. It was strange to see vultures, egrets, wagtails, cattle and human beings at the site, each looking for choice bits for their livelihood.
After 2 days of watching vultures in the lowlands we ventured onwards to the foothills of the Annapurna. We trekked from the small village of Kande, to Australian Camp and GuestHouse, some 2000 m above sea level. Australian Camp offered clean en suite rooms, complete with water heater! The night temperature in November can be as low as 5 degree centigrade. The discomfort from the cold was quickly forgotten as each morning we were greeted by glorious sunrise at about 6.30 am. The sun casts shades of red and orange, firstly on the tips of the Annapurna mountain range, and slowly, ever so slowly the clouds shift to reveal the majestic Annapurna South and Machapuchare (Fishtail) peaks.
Bird watching …
The days that followed were free and easy with day time activities centered on getting up to the knoll to watch vultures and other raptors as they thermal towards us or walk in the cool of the forests to look for montane birds. We met with a young raptor researcher, Mr Suresh Gurung, at the knoll. Suresh spends 45 days each year at the same site to survey and record raptor species. Some 400 Steppe Eagles, 180 Himalayan Griffons and many other species were spotted during our 5-day stay at the Australian Camp. Nepal is a great birding destination.
The Pink-browed Rosefinch is a finch in the family Fringillidae. It ranges across Bhutan, Tibet, India, Nepal, and Pakistan.
Ecotourism plays an important part in the economy of Nepal. It is indeed gratifying to know that the government and her people work together in nature conservation. The vulture restaurant is a great example. Scavenger birds like vultures are important to the ecosystem as they help prevent spread of disease into the wider environment. In a Hindu predominant society where cattle are considered holy and cannot be killed, impoverished villagers must look after unproductive and ageing cattle until their natural death. NGO like Bird Conservation Nepal collects these ageing cattle, pays the villagers a small sum to buy more productive stock. The “senior” cattle are brought to “care centres”. Commonly, these care centres were patches of land overgrown with invasive plant species. Villagers involved in the vulture restaurant scheme help to rehabilitate the land into community forest where the ageing cattle graze. Upon their natural deaths the carcasses are laid out for vultures at the Jatayu Restaurant. In the meantime, the community forests attract grassland birds and mammals thus enriching biodiversity in the area. The Jatayu Restaurant leaves nothing to waste. Dried cattle bones are grounded and sold to villagers to fertilize their fields.
Conservation in their hearts …
The Vulture restaurants in Nepal are seen as successful nature conservation models that benefit wildlife and humans. Similar model has since been replicated in India and Pakistan.
Our group had a great experience, enjoying not just the wonders of nature. We witnessed a successful conservation project in action and hoped that our token donations to the young raptor researcher and the Jatayu Restaurant at Ghachock help.
This article is made possible with much help from fellow birders:
Text by Swee Peng, assisted by Mr Lee Oon Teik and Ms Constance Teo
Photos of birds by Mr Lim Kam Su and Mr Chan Kin Fatt
Photos of the Vulture Restaurant and surrounding by Swee Peng and Ms Polly Chin
Photos of the Majestic Annapurna Range by Mr John Choong