It’s more gory than throwing seed to pigeons and more effort than tossing bread to ducks, but here in Cambodia, ‘vulture restaurants’ are being set up to ensure these remarkable birds get fed, and the dwindling vulture population in South Asia is protected.
Numbers have recently crashed across the region – populations have shrunk dramatically in South East Asia and plummeted by as much as 90 – 99% on the Indian subcontinent.
However, despite such worrying trends, the outlook for the birds is much brighter in Cambodia; research published last month shows that numbers are stable and may in fact be increasing.
This fact may be thanks in part to the efforts of a coalition of conservation groups, in partnership with the Cambodian government, which has for eight years been managing several ‘vulture restaurants’ set up in vulture territory in the North East provinces.
Sources of vulture food were initially restricted by the loss of the Cambodian wild cattle population during the country’s years of civil war, but in more recent years changing agricultural practices and the adoption of machinery to replace animal for transport has deprived them of domestic carrion too, necessitating this supplementary feeding programme.
One cattle carcass is delivered to each restaurant once a month.
It has to be cut up in preparation; the vultures are not equipped with sharp enough beaks and claws to slash through tough hide and without help, the birds would have to wait three days for the process of composition to begin.
Remarkably, it only takes an hour for fifty hungry birds to finish their feast.
Simon Mahood, from the Wildlife Conservation Society, explains why it is important to preserve the vulture population.
“Up until the 1960s, Cambodia had incredible megafauna; cattle, deer, elephants, tigers", he said. "The bigger animals are gone now, or are here in much depleted numbers. It is relatively cheap to restore the wild cattle and deer populations and we must ensure that we hang on to the vultures in the meantime."
"In India they are spending a lot of money on a captive breeding programme, but it is relatively easy and cheap to maintain a stable population here,” he added.
The Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project is also undertaking advocacy work to minimise the use of those drugs and poisons in agriculture and pest control that are lethal to vultures, and it is setting up nest protection programmes to ensure successful breeding.
To contact the reporter on this story: Anna Brown at [email protected]