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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodian vultures among last of dying breed

Cambodian vultures among last of dying breed

Cambodian vultures among last of dying breed


Spending days in a tiny hut a hundred meters from a slowly decaying cow carcass

may not be everyone's idea of a fun trip to the countryside, but there are worse

jobs.

White-rumped vultures.

For instance, being the photographer stationed just ten meters away

from the stinking corpse.

This was the scene last year as researchers

from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the strong-stomached freelance

photographer Allan Michaud spent days staking out "vulture restaurants" in open

fields around Preah Vihear and Mondolkiri provinces.

"What tends to

happen is the guys go and kill the cow and within 48 hours the vultures will

arrive and within another two or three days they will have completely eaten the

remains," said Tom Clements, technical advisor with WCS in

Cambodia.

Using the "vulture restaurant" technique, the research team

observed a small but flourishing population of red-headed, slender-billed and

white-rumped vultures.

The sight of these much-mythologized scavengers in

northern and eastern Cambodia has reassured conservationists who have seen

vulture numbers in South Asia decimated over the last decade.

A red-headed vulture.

In Nepal

three species of Griffon vultures - Gyps bengalensis, Gyps indicus and Gyps

tenuirostris - are almost extinct, while 97 per cent of India's once bountiful

vulture population vanished in the years between 1993 and 2003. Pakistan is said

to be losing 30 to 40 per cent of its vultures each year.

"Declines of

this magnitude in once very common species have not been seen since the

extinction of the Great Auk, or the Passenger Pigeon in the 19th century," said

Dr Martin Gilbert, a veterinarian with the Peregrine Fund.

For years,

scientists and bird lovers struggled to get to the bottom of this phenomenon,

but only in January of this year did an answer emerge.

A three-year

study organized by the Peregrine Fund discovered the culprit to be an

anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac. Used by veterinarians to treat cattle,

the drug causes kidney failure, visceral gout and a swift death for vultures

feeding on the carcasses of treated cows.

Tuck into restaurant fare.

"Their death loss has

important economic, cultural and human health consequences," said Dr Munir

Virani, the biologist who coordinated the field study. "Vultures have an

important ecological role in the Asian environment, where they have been relied

upon for millennia to clean up and remove dead livestock and even human

corpses."

Experts warned that diseases such as rabies and anthrax may

spread more easily without the effective scavengers, who are able to dispose of

a dead cow in a matter of hours.

The drastic decline in vultures has had

particularly strong repercussions for followers of the Parsee religion in India,

who traditionally raise their dead onto a raised platform known as the "tower of

silence" for the vultures and elements to complete a "sky burial".

Now,

the Parsee community is experimenting with captive breeding programs to try to

keep local vultures, and cultures, alive.

With millions of liters of the

highly toxic drug still being sold in India, conservationists are pessimistic

about the vulture's chances.

"Given the situation in South Asia - India,

Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh - there probably aren't going to be any of these

species left there within five years," says Tom Clements.

"Basically

we're going to be left with two wild populations, in Myanmar and northern

Cambodia, and I suspect the population in Cambodia is the one that will be much

easier for people to go and see and study in the future. "

The open dry

forests of Preah Vihear, Mondolkiri, Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng provide ideal

habitat for vultures and Clements estimates there is a population of several

hundred birds.

The slender-billed and white-rumped vultures have made

the critically endangered list internationally, while the red-headed vulture

belongs to a different sub-species of raptor.

So far, Cambodian vultures

have not been hit by the devastating effects of diclofenac. While the drug is

available, it is sold only in human doses from pharmacies and cases of it being

used on cattle are rare.

Nevertheless, the situation in Nepal, India and

Pakistan has shown the dangers of using diclofenac to treat livestock and WCS

has been providing technical reports to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry

and Fisheries in the hope that it will be banned from Cambodia in the future.

Keeping veterinarian-sized quantities of diclofenac out of the country

and conducting more research are the top priorities for WCS and other wildlife

NGOs trying to protect the three species found in Cambodia.

Tom Clements

admits that despite their valuable ecological role, vultures are not the most

attractive prospect for donors.

"I think it's always going to be slighter

harder to get funding for them than some of the sexier species [but] on the

other hand the amount of money you need to do conservation on vultures is very

small," says Clements.

Unfortunately, the protection of vultures in Phnom

Tamao zoo, 52 km south of Phnom Penh, has not gone so well in the past. One of

two white-rumped vultures being kept in captivity was stolen by a keeper in

November last year to be used for traditional medicine, while the other died of

bird flu a month later.

Despite these unfortunate deaths in custody,

juvenile birds spotted by the WCS team suggests good breeding is occurring among

wild vultures and anecdotal reports suggest hunting for food, trading or sport

has decreased since the 1998 gun ban.

Cambodia's healthy vulture

population could also provide an economic boost to regions isolated from trade

and mainstream tourism.

Taking their lead from Africa, where busloads of

people pay to watch birds of prey tear apart their dinner at vulture restaurants

in safari parks, WCS will be looking at the potential for sustainable

eco-tourism projects for what Tom Clements describes as "extreme

birders".

"In the longer term there's a fair amount of potential [for

more mainstream vulture-based tourism but] in the short term what we are trying

to promote is the idea of smaller groups of keen birders who can go up there,

pay the costs of doing it and give some money to the local villagers," Clements

says.

With many rare species of birds finding sanctuary in Cambodia's

fast-disappearing forests, Clements says opportunities for responsible

eco-tourism and conservation abound.

"There's a lot of good news in

respect to these large birds which are not hunted, still relatively common in

some areas and fairly easy to conserve, if Cambodia wants to."

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