KRISHNA MANI BARAL
In the early 2000s, locals in areas where vultures nested started noticing increased numbers of rats and dogs. Carcasses of dead animals by the riverbeds were left untouched for days and vulture nests in the forests started disappearing.
Conservationists confirmed that the vulture numbers had indeed dropped alarmingly - in 15 years 95 per cent of vultures had vanished from south Asia. Studies of dead vultures revealed that an anti-inflammatory drug called Diclofenac, used on livestock, was causing kidney failure in vultures that fed on their carcasses.
A vulture summit was organised in 2004, and government officials and conservationists from Nepal, India and Pakistan committed to take action immediately. Diclofenac was banned in Nepal and a safer substitute, Meloxicam, was found. Organisations like Nepal's Bird Conservation have been working proactively in monitoring the ban, educating farmers and cattle owners about the use of Meloxicam, and in setting up vulture restaurants (where birds can feed safely on healthy meat put out by restaurant owers) in Nawalparasi, Rupandehi and Dang.
There are no official numbers, but ornithologists say that nesting has increased, especially around the vulture restaurant areas. In 2004, no colony had been found in the Koshi Tappu area. In October 2009 a similar survey found 32 nests of the White-rumped Vulture. It is not known whether this is a new colony, or one made up of vultures that withstood the effects of Diclofenac. But the initiative really took off last month when locals of nine districts declared they would become Diclofenac free.
Experts warn that vulture numbers may not go back to what they were 15 years ago, but their re-emergence is a positive sign. This journey for vulture conservationists hasn't been easy, but locals in native vulture areas are once again seeing new nests appearing every season, more birds are circling in the skies and animal carcasses are disappearing within hours of being put out. Today even neighbouring countries have acknowledged this success: Pakistan has opened a vulture restaurant in Sindh and similar initiatives are in the pipeline in various states of India.
This is a big success story for Nepal, from which there are many lessons to learn. It is a perfect example of pan-regional cooperation, for one. But community has had a crucial role to play. Considering the stigma attached to vultures in many south Asian cultures, it's hard to believe communities in rural Nepal would want to save these big scavengers. Not anymore, say vulture experts at Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN), which leads the vulture conservation effort. In the areas where the vultures roam, the communities understand why saving scavengers is important. In fact, it is because of the community's involvement that the vulture restaurants have been so successful. The community looks after the restaurants, monitors the trees where the vultures are nesting so they are not cut down, and plays an important role in advocacy.
The biggest lesson here is the power of community. From saving forests to roads and using radio as a development tool, community involvement has very often been key to the success of projects in Nepal. As we start another new year, here's hoping policymakers understand the true meaning of people power and promote projects for community partnership and ownership.