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
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
Using the "vulture restaurant" technique, the research team
observed a small but flourishing population of red-headed, slender-billed and
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.
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.
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.
scientists and bird lovers struggled to get to the bottom of this phenomenon,
but only in January of this year did an answer emerge.
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
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".
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.
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
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.
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
"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
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."