The rapidly declining population of white-backed vultures in India has been a cause of concern for several decades. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) noted that during the 1980s, this bird “was so abundant in India that it was probably the most common large bird of prey in the world.” However, when a drug named diclofenac began to be administered to the animals whose carcasses were traditionally consumed by vultures, it caused them to suffer renal failure. Their numbers declined by an astounding 99.9 percent between 1992 and 2007.

In 2006, a ban on animal-formulated diclofenac was introduced, but the human-formulated medication has continued to be used to illegally treat animals. A test on livestock carcasses throughout the country, carried out by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), found that six percent of the bodies contained traces of diclofenac – an amount that was considered too high for the vulture population to recover. Late last month, India’s Ministry of Health took a significant step toward halting the extinction of the white-backed vulture, by restricting the production of human-formulated diclofenac to single vials of three milliliters.

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And now, the Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra is playing a part in the species’ rescue by opening the country’s first ever vultures-only restaurant! In this new restaurant, the birds are fed their traditional meals of dead cattle, sheep or goats, guaranteed to be diclofenac-free. The vulture’s meal is laid out on stony ground in the middle of a clearing, right next to a water trough. The vultures have also been provided with large trees to alight on.

“We put out a carcass every three or four days,” Sunil Limaye, caretaker with the sanctuary, explained. “So far, the results are good. The vultures are laying eggs.” Ornithologist Satish Pande has noted that this pioneering initiative could hold a lot of promise, as there are far fewer livestock carcasses available to vultures than there was in the past. In recent years, Indian farmers have tended to bury their animals or spray them with pesticides.

German bird protection expert, Lars Lachmann, expressed his support of the vulture restaurant, saying, “in this way a few birds can be saved that might otherwise have eaten poisoned meat.”

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List currently classifies the Indian white-backed vulture (Gypsus Bengalensis) as critically endangered, and notes that “vulture restaurants are increasingly used as ecotourism attractions in parts of the species’ range, particularly Cambodia, to raise awareness and fund supplementary feeding programs and research.”

However, the organization cautions that in order to be truly effective, such initiatives must also be combined with strong efforts to halt the use of diclofenac. As an example of such a measure, it has suggested promoting “the immediate adoption of meloxicam (a similar medication) as an alternative to diclofenac.”

While this “restaurant” might not be the world’s most appetizing joint in the eyes of humans, we can only hope that the vultures will continue to think otherwise. Bon appétit, birds!

Lead image source: Wikimedia Commons

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