Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Vulture Restaurant

When we were setting up this Cambodia trip through the Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation, and saw the price breakdown for different items, Jim emailed us something to the effect of "and we get a cow, too! What's that about?"

A critically-endangered Red-headed Vulture joins his White-rumped kin at a feeding station. (Photos by Narca)

The populations of several species of Old World vultures have been in freefall in recent years, to the point that they are critically in danger of extinction. The primary cause has been a veterinary drug, diclofenac, which is given to sick livestock and which kills the vultures that feed on the carcasses of toxic animals. Vultures are wide-ranging, so although the drug is not used in Cambodia, the Cambodian populations have nonetheless declined dramatically.

A stopgap measure now in use is to provide a few feeding stations with safe carcasses for the endangered vultures. If we can nurse the populations beyond this major challenge, while removing the toxic drugs from the environment, it is possible that the vulture populations can once again thrive. In addition to helping vultures, these feeding stations also provision endangered Greater Adjutants (a stork), endangered Dholes (Indian Wild Dog), and Leopards.

Feedings at the Chhep Vulture Restaurant in Preah Vihear Protected Forest are timed to coincide with the visits of birders, although the vultures are fed monthly whether or not tourists are present. Feedings also occur at other sites, with the overall timing staggered to even out the food supply. Local villagers benefit from the sale of aging or ailing animals, and the vultures perform their natural function. The idea may sound a bit gruesome, but I found the scene was much less macabre than similar scenes of chaotic predation in Africa.

Here is what happened:

We arrive at our campsite, which is exactly like that provided at Prey Veng. Local villagers cook for us and outfit the camp. In return, the village receives fees from our stay; fees from ecotourism fund much-needed projects like the drilling of wells for clean water.

The next morning we rise before dawn and make our way past the pond where yesterday a Stork-billed Kingfisher perched. A beautiful big snake, thickly banded in black and pale yellow, slithers past us. Beyond the pond lies grassland with scattered trees, the foraging turf for Savannah Nightjars.

About a kilometer from camp, we enter two blinds raised on scaffolding. Rich takes the higher one, which has openings better suited to his big camera lens.

Alan and our guide Nara descend from the blind at the Vulture Restaurant.

Dawn breaks, and the trees beyond us are festooned in vultures. Below them lies the dead cow. Looking at the gaunt beast, I decide that it is probably a mercy to feed it to these vultures. Soon the vultures descend to the ground next to the cow, but don't feed. They seem wary.

White-rumped Vultures contemplate breakfast.

The few big Red-headed Vultures are magnificent beasts, dominating the smaller and more numerous White-rumped Vultures. The Red-heads hold themselves regally and brook no interference from lesser mortals. Eventually the vultures settle down. Predictably, a Red-head is the first to begin to feed.

A Red-headed Vulture in full splendor

But before the bulk of the vultures can start feeding, a lactating village dog arrives, and the vultures withdraw to watch. Then a herd of Water Buffalo moves in, sniffing the cow, licking nearby bones, and routing the dog who should by this time be well-fed. Very soon, our local guides arrive with a packed breakfast omelette, and they shoo away the buffalo, threatening them with a small stick.

Water Buffalo investigate the feeding station, as the vultures wait.

Vultures are a patient lot. Now, finally, they feed. The flock quickly morphs into a roiling mass of wings and snapping beaks. A half hour later, birds begin to withdraw, their crops very full.

White-rumped Vultures have... white rumps

We amble back to camp, to a very welcome bush shower, before heading on to Okoki.

A Red-headed Vulture flies off with full crop.

No comments:

Post a Comment