Want to see vultures in the wild? You'd better be prepared to get up early. Like 4:30am early! And if you want to get in real close, you'd also better be prepared to stand silently in a thatch-covered pit for four or five hours to get that 'special photo'. At least that's what my cameraman Mark Giddens had to do to shoot the video for our story on Cambodia's last surviving vulture population.
Vultures can be spooked easily, hence the need for silence. But once they have decided to eat, there's no holding them back. A food-fest ensues, with upwards of sometimes 70 birds eating a cow that's been specially slaughtered for them. The vulture restaurant in Veal Krous is one of several sites across northern Cambodia set up to save the vulture population from extinction. In South Asia, the birds have been in catastrophic decline over the last 20 years because of the use of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac in farming.
You may have used it yourself to ease away muscular aches and pains in creams or gels like Voltaren. The problem with diclofenac is that it's extremely toxic to vultures, whose diet is exclusively rotting meat. In Hindu India, the birds used to clean the carcasses of dead cows on the street, left to rot naturally by humans because of religious connotations. Followers of the Zoroastrian faith also used to place human corpses on their Towers of Silence for vultures to feed on as part of their funeral rites. With bird numbers now so low in India, the Parsis have had to place mirrors on the Towers to allow reflecting sunlight to speed up decomposition.
Similarly to India, vultures are almost extinct in Pakistan and Nepal. They've disappeared completely in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. But the vultures have hung on in Cambodia, primarily because diclofenac is not really used. The danger here is the lack of wild game thanks to hunting, poaching and loss of habitat. The vultures may just starve to death. They need to eat regularly to stay healthy. At first, animal specialists couldn't work out why vultures were dying in such large numbers. Then they discovered the link with diclofenac. It remains in the muscle tissue of animals that have been administered with it. Just a one per cent concentration in an animal carcass is enough to kill the birds through kidney failure.
Vulture numbers have doubled to around 300 in Cambodia with gains for the white-backed and slender billed vultures. Numbers for the red-headed vulture have stabilised. A ban has been slowly introduced across Asia and the rate of decline has slowed. If the vulture restaurants really catch on, there is real hope for these birds of prey. The Wildlife Conservation Society and the Sam Veasna Centre have worked with local villagers to set up the restaurants. The villagers earn money by providing guiding and camping services to visiting tourists and birdwatchers. The incentive for them, says community advisor Asish John, is the money, which they can use to benefit the entire village. Dangplat earned more than $6,000 in 2011. Now they have enough cash to build a new well, a vital resource in this dry part of the country. The locals are happy because not only can they feed themselves better, they can also ensure the vultures have full stomachs to.
Footnote: If birding is your bag then Cambodia's growing reputation as the place to see rare species is rapidly gaining ground. The Sarus Crane is one of the rarest, and is found in the greatest numbers at Ang Trapeang Thmor in the north. However, it now has a rival, in fact two. Two major feeding sites are beginning to poke their head above the parapet and interesting 'twitchers' in the south of the country. They are at the accessible Anlong Pring in the Kompong Trach district of Kampot and at Boeung Prek Lapouv in Takeo, where other birds such as Bengal Floricans and Pelicans are regularly seen. This second location is harder to get to and involves an hour long boat ride, but for real birding enthusiasts that won't prove any type of obstacle.