9 Jan 2018

Award for vulture restaurant pioneer whose work helps poor farmers

This 2017 Nature's Heroes, nominated by Bird Conservation Nepal, pioneered safe feeding areas which have led to the beginning of a recovery in populations of threatened vultures.

By Nick Langley

One of BirdLife's 2017 Nature's Heroes nominated by Bird Conservation Nepal pioneered safe feeding areas which have led to the beginning of a recovery in populations of threatened vultures, and are being replicated elsewhere on the Sub-continent. The work he began is now helping with the conservation of grassland birds and mammals, delivering sustainable livelihoods to communities including excluded castes, and providing a happy (and eventually useful) retirement and death for cows which have reached the ends of their productive lives.

Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary is a community leader, and coordinator of Nepal's first community-managed Vulture Safe Feeding Site (popularly known as the Jatayu Vulture Restaurant) which was established in 2006 in Pithauli, Nawalparasi.

Bird Conservation Nepal and the local people of the Namuna Community Forest User Groups pioneered the idea of vulture safe feeding sites in response to the catastrophic decline of formerly common vulture species because of the widespread contamination of cattle carcasses with the veterinary drug diclofenac. The Jatayu restaurant provides safe food close to an existing vulture breeding colony.

Since the beginning, in collaboration with Bird Conservation Nepal, Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary, a life member of the BirdLife Partner Organisation, has led the Jatayu Restaurant Management Committee. The committee arranges to collect old and unproductive cattle from the nearby villages, and takes them to a Cow Rescue Centre, where they are looked after. Following their natural deaths, their carcasses are laid out for vultures at the Jatayu restaurant.

A Vulture Information Centre, and a hide from which feeding vultures can be viewed, attract visitors, and spread knowledge of the importance of vultures in maintaining a healthy environment, free of decaying carcasses and associated infections and pests such as feral dogs. In addition to conserving vultures, the vulture restaurant provides sustainable livelihoods through ecotourism. Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary has played key role in promoting ecotourism integrated with the culture of local indigenous people and the biodiversity of the area.

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Nepal is home to nine species of vultures. Five of these species, including the white-rumped vulture, underwent catastrophic population declines of greater than 90% in the mid-1990s to early-2010s  © Rajendra Gurung

“In rural Nepal, a popular pastime for many young boys was playing with homemade catapults, becoming such good shots that they injured and killed many birds”

explains BCN's Krishna Prasad Bhusal. “In his teenage years, Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary encouraged the boys in his community to put down their catapults, and offered them an alternative. Instead of shooting birds, learn about them. In time they too became interested and passionate about the bird species found in their neighbourhood. They even started bringing injured and sick birds they had found, and together they treated them as best they could and released them back where they found them.”

Now grown up, Chaudhary and his friends have established a Community Learning Centre where students and other people can come and expand their knowledge about vulture conservation, sustainability and wildlife ecology. “At times it has been a struggle to get everyone on board, but now we feel in a positive and united place for biodiversity conservation,” Krishna Prasad Bhusal says.

The Jatayu venture has inspired other Nepali communities to establish vulture restaurants

The success of the Jatayu venture has inspired other Nepali communities to establish vulture restaurants, in Gaidahawa, Rupendehi, Lalmatiya and Bijauri of Dang, Khutiya, Kailali, Ghachok, Kaski and Ramdhuni, and Sunsari. “All these restaurant sites have shown a positive result, with increases in vulture numbers, and have spread the message of vulture conservation.”

Local Conservation Group representatives from 17 districts took part in two days “Vulture conservation and Vulture Safe Zone management” chaired by D.B. Chaudhary, January 2018 © BCN

Over 217 vultures have been counted around a single carcass at one time. Between 2007 and 2010, Bird Conservation Nepal recorded a 150% increase in the populations of four globally threatened vultures species, and nesting by White-rumped Vulture in the area has increased by over 200% . This achievement was formally recognised in 2010, when the work was awarded the prestigious WWF Abraham Conservation Award. Vulture-safe restaurants are now being replicated elsewhere on the Subcontinent, including in India and Pakistan.

The community involved in the Jatayu scheme have also cleared invasive plant species from around the site, resulting in the regeneration of grasses, which is helping the conservation of the Critically Endangered Bengal Florican, and provided improved habitat for other birds and large herbivorous mammals including deer and rhino. More recently they have been developing conservation initiatives within wetland areas, focused on improving wildlife habitats. “Rhinos, spotted deer, barking deer, peacocks and thrushes all need grasslands for their survival” says Krishna Prasad Bhusal. “If the grasslands are healthy and full of prey, the tiger will come to the grasslands to hunt.”

The Jatayu Restaurant initiative benefits humans and domestic animals as well as wildlife.

The ethnic Tharu community and the surrounding villages are predominately of the Hindu faith, and so consider their cattle holy. Since they cannot be used for meat, they are kept until they die a natural death, which takes up valuable farming space, and drains resources and money from the already impoverished families. The Jatayu Restaurant buys the old and dying cattle for 250-NRS a head. They are then housed and fed in the specially designed Cow Hospice in the grasslands of the Community Forest, until they die naturally.

White-rumped Vulture populations are benefiting from Vulture Safe Zone management © Natasha Peters

“The beauty of this project is that, simply, it benefits everyone”, explains Krishna Prasad Bhusal

“Low-income farming families have the pressure of keeping an ailing cow removed and receive money towards their next cow, while the vultures benefit by having a frequent food source in a safe, protected environment. Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary has developed a working relationship with men and women from the excluded Mushahar caste on a number of riverine grassland and wetland management initiatives in the Namuna Buffer Zone Community Forest. Activities such as these not only provide a source of livelihood for local communities, but also make them more receptive to the principles of biodiversity conservation.”