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For vultures, a dish best served old


WWF plans first nationwide ount of rare vultures this June



Vultures feed on a cow’s carcass provided by the World Wide Fund for Nature at Mondulkiri Protected Forest, Mondulkiri province.

Phnom Penh student Keo Sreyleak was licking her lips when her parents told her the family was taking a trip to a vulture restaurant in Mondulkiri province.

It wasn’t a typical outing for the 19-year-old, who imagined that the conservation group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) would put on a tasty feast of exotic meats at the “restaurant” it runs in the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary.

“I was very surprised,” said the Russey Keo High School senior. “I was hoping to try some delicious vulture soup, which I’d never eaten or even seen before.”

But after a long drive, Sreyleak discovered a less than appetizing menu. There was meat, but it was beef, not vulture – and it wasn’t cooked. Nor was there any for Sreyleak.

Instead, a cow’s carcass had been placed in a field for wild animals and, later, a score of hungry vultures to feed on.

Sreyleak said her initial feelings of disappointment were transformed into awe as the hideous feathered beasts hopped over each other, tearing away chunks of rotting fresh. 

The WWF’s “vulture restaurant” scheme has proven a hit with Cambodia’s far-traveling carrion eaters, whose numbers are believed to be growing again after plummeting during the past half-century as years of war led to the deaths of the wild animals that vultures traditionally relied on for food.

Seng Teak, WWF’s country director for Cambodia, said the global conservation group first noticed a concerning decline in vulture numbers across Asia in 2004.

The same year, the WWF started running “vulture restaurants” here, a strategy tested in other Asian countries that has worked to replenish vulture numbers, Teak said.

The WWF will hold its first nationwide vulture survey in Cambodia next month, and Teak is confident the count will reaffirm the project’s value.

“Since we started the project, the number of vultures and other wild animals in Cambodia has been increasing,” he said, explaining that cows are butchered in forested areas and left first for other animals to feed on. Once the meat starts to rot, vultures take their turn picking over the bones.

The WWF has so far spent about $2,000 a year on cows to feed Cambodia’s three types of vultures; the red-headed, white-rumped and slender-billed species. And while the project has had some beneficial side effects, such as drawing tourists like Sryleak’s family to some of the Kingdom’s more isolated regions, Teak said the vulture restaurants had a limited life.

“We will stop it once the number of wild animals and vultures in Cambodia has increased sufficiently,” he said, adding that he did not know when this would be.

Since we started the project, the number of vultures and other wild animals in Cambodia has been increasing.

– Seng Teak, WWF country director

The WWF currently runs seven vulture restaurants in the country – two in Mondulkiri province at the Phnom Prich sanctuary and in Mondulkiri Protected Forest; two in Preah Vihear province at the Phnom Nam Lyr and Chheb wildlife sanctuaries; one in Ratanakkiri province at the Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary; one in Stung Treng province’s Siem Pang district; and one in Kratie province at the Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary.

“The vultures keep the environment clean and they’re also a tourist attraction – so long as the Cambodian government protects them well,” said Teak.

“Most Cambodian people under 35 have never seen a vulture before in real life,” he added.

Sreyleak, however, now proudly counts herself among the few who have, and although she never got her imagined drumstick, she says the trip out of town was well worth it.

“It was fantastic. I saw the vultures fighting each other for parts of the cow,” Sreyleak said, adding that, “All those images stopped me being hungry anyway.”




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