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Science & Technology

Saving Vultures With Nepal's 'Vulture Restaurant'

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And so if I say, vulture restaurant - might not exactly sound pleasant. But this restaurant in a town in Nepal is not a place to dine on vulture meat. It is actually a restaurant for the birds, which are endangered. It offers them safe food in an effort to prevent them from dying off. Danielle Preiss paid a visit.

DANIELLE PREISS: The vulture restaurant in Pithauli doesn't look like much of a restaurant. It looks like a jungle.

(SOUNDBITE OF VULTURES SQUAWKING)

PREISS: But there are vultures. Kewal Chaudary, one of the restaurant's staff, points out a nest.

KEWAL CHAUDARY: That is an Egyptian vulture nest.

PREISS: Oh, that's Egyptian vulture.

CHAUDARY: Yeah (laughter).

PREISS: Oh, I see it.

We're actually here to see six white-rumped vultures that just moved in from a breeding center where they grew up. The 8-year-old birds are staying in a large, chain-link cage in the jungle, where they exercise their wings and learn how to survive by watching wild vultures. Once they're ready, probably in fall, they'll be released.

NATASHA PETERS: This will be the first releases in South Asia.

PREISS: Natasha Peters, from the U.K.'s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, says the fate of these six birds will help scientists know whether the environment is ready for vultures to come back. White-rumped vultures used to be one of the world's most abundant large birds of prey but lost over 99 percent of their population in about a decade.

PETERS: It's one of the fastest declines that we've ever seen in a species before.

PREISS: That was in the 1990s. And the decimation is blamed on a painkiller used in cows called diclofenac. The drug caused kidney failure in birds who ate the carcasses. In Hindu-majority countries, like India and Nepal, cows aren't eaten, so vultures do the dirty work of disposal.

PETERS: And what we've seen in India is that with the decline of vultures, there's been a large increase in rabid dogs.

PREISS: Diclofenac was banned in Nepal, India and Pakistan in 2006. But by that time, the vultures were on the verge of extinction. So an organization called Bird Conservation Nepal started gathering chicks from the wild as a last-ditch effort to save the species in captivity.

D B CHAUDARY: We had that breeding center because we thought they'll be completely wiped out from the Earth.

PREISS: Pithauli native D.B. Chaudary volunteers with Bird Conservation Nepal and convinced his neighbors to start the vulture restaurant. But it wasn't easy. It was also considered bad luck if a vulture landed on your house, Chaudary says.

But now that the restaurant brings in tourists and some much-needed money, people have changed their minds. The biggest tourist attraction? Watching the birds eat.

YAM BAHADUR NEPALI: (Through interpreter) They eat a goat in 10 or 12 minutes.

PREISS: You might call Yam Bahadur Nepali the restaurant's only waiter. His arm is speckled with the blood of a goat he just killed. Half the goat goes to the birds inside the aviary; the rest, just outside to entice wild vultures so that the newbies can watch them and learn.

NEPALI: (Through interpreter) I used to feel it was disgusting at the very beginning. But we have a saying in Nepali - as long as you don't have debts, who cares if your work is disgusting?

PREISS: With other tourists, I huddle in a wooden structure with tiny slits for peeking out so the wild vultures won't be bothered. The caged birds hop off their perch and peck at the carcass, squabbling with each other over the meat.

(SOUNDBITE OF VULTURES SQUAWKING)

PREISS: A while later, wild vultures swoop into a tree next to the cage and eventually to the ground to work on their half. Crows join them. For over an hour, the vultures hang out and watch each other through the fence until, finally, the wild ones fly off. Soon, their captive sisters will join them.

For NPR News, I'm Danielle Preiss, in Pithauli, Nepal.

(SOUNDBITE OF RONNY JORDAN'S "NEW DELHI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.