PHANSAD WILDLIFE SANCTUARY, India — Deep in the wildlife sanctuary, a swath of grasslands opens onto a clearing so dry the ground looks covered in yellow hay. In the middle of the clearing, leftover cow teeth, hooves and bones are strewn about. We have arrived, the forest officials say, at India’s vulture restaurant.

Vultures in India, Pakistan and Nepal began dying off two decades ago after a painkiller used to treat sick farm animals became popular in the region, according to environmentalists. Feasting on heavily medicated pack animals, the vultures were unknowingly bringing about their own demise.

In an effort to save the scavengers from extinction, the state of Maharashtra has embarked on a project to create a safe space where the birds can eat, mingle and table hop without accidentally being poisoned to death.

The so-called restaurant, which will have its grand opening this month, will serve vulture delicacies: cow, water buffalo and bullock carcasses. Forest officials will secure the carcasses from nearby villages, ensure the animals had not been treated with the poisonous chemical called diclofenac before they died and then bring them to this clearing in Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary in Raigad district, about 150 kilometers south of Mumbai.

India banned farmers from using diclofenac after it was discovered the drug was killing the vultures; however, the ban has been difficult to implement. The drug is still widely available, and farmers do not know the damage it can cause to the birds, said Dilip Gujar, the forest deputy conservator for Maharashtra. The drug destroys a vulture’s kidneys, killing the scavenger within three days.

“Vultures are a very important part of nature,” said Raju Kasambe, who runs a bird conservation project for the Bombay Natural History Society. “They are nature’s own cleaner. When an animal or cattle is dead in the forest there is no body to clean it except for vultures.”

There are only about 10,000 vultures left in India, according to government officials, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature put three species of vultures in South and Southeast Asia on its critically endangered list about 10 years ago.

Without the scavengers, the slowly decaying carcasses can spread odor and even diseases in a village, Kasambe said. Stray dogs and smaller scavenger birds like house crows and black kites have become more common. These birds are problematic, he said, because they feed on other birds’ nests and decrease an environment’s biodiversity. The dogs can bite people and spread diseases.

The dwindling number of vultures has also been a problem for India’s Parsi community, which traditionally disposed of their dead by placing the bodies on a dokhma, or Tower of Silence, to be decomposed by the sun and vultures. With virtually no vultures left in Mumbai, the Parsis have resorted to installing solar reflectors on the Tower of Silence, but this can take days to decompose a body and does not work during the monsoons. Reformists in the community have opted for the more controversial method of cremation.

While any efforts to bring back vultures should be applauded, it is not likely that the forest department’s restaurant will impact the Parsi community, said Jehangir Patel, editor of Parsiana magazine.

“It may not help us, but it will help the environment generally and the country also,” he said.

The forest department does not plan on adapting its efforts to help the Parsis.

“We are wildlifers; we are concerned about the ecology and wildlife conservation,” Gujar said. Furthermore, he doubted it would be possible to join efforts. “How will I put the human body over here? The police will come!”

These animal bones are at the spot where the new vulture restaurant will be. (Ajay Nair/GlobalPost)

To prevent other animals from snacking on the vultures’ food, officials will build a chain-link fence around the 2-acre plot, said Gujar as he stood next to the discarded cow bones, leftover from a test run. They will also build platforms on which to serve the carcasses and leave some wooden logs where the birds can perch.

The success of the restaurant will depend on the forest officials’ ability to secure enough food for the vultures. In the past, villagers skinned dead animals for their hides and then left the carcass in the field for the scavengers, Gujar said. These days, villagers take sick animals to slaughterhouses, which pay around 1,000 rupees ($22) for a bull.

In order to encourage the villagers to let their animals die naturally and then give them to the sanctuary, the forest department plans on paying about 3,000 rupees ($67) for each carcass, according to Gujar.

They have a budget of 50,000 ($1,136) rupees for the year to run the establishment and, as Gujar said, “to see if our restaurant will be successful.”

Creating so-called vulture restaurants is an established form of vulture conservation and has been used in Pakistan and Nepal.

Another way to save the birds is through artificial breeding, which the Bombay Natural History Society conducts at breeding centers in the Indian states of Haryana, West Bengal and Assam, according to Kasambe. After a vulture lays an egg, the conservationists remove the egg and incubate it artificially. The bird then lays a second egg for natural incubation. This program has been successful, and 18 vultures are now ready to be released into the wild, he said.

Kasambe acknowledges that this project has produced a small number of vultures given the hundreds of thousands that have died off. He says the only real hope is more awareness among farmers to stop using the drug that has been poisoning the birds.

“Awareness is the only solution now that can save the vulture,” he said. “I hope they will come back again, and they will be there in the sky.”

Follow Hanna on Twitter: @Hanna_India

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