A Census for Scavengers

June 2, 2011

WCS begins our annual tally of vulture populations in Cambodia. After last year’s record numbers, hopes for these birds are on the rise.

It’s that time of year again. WCS conservationists are looking to the skies, treetops, and roadsides of Cambodia in search of vultures. They are conducting a census for these birds to evaluate how their populations are faring in the face of environmental threats such as pesticides and habitat loss.

Last year’s results sent hopes soaring. They revealed Cambodia to be the only country in Asia with either increasing or steady vulture populations. As of last count, red-headed and slender-billed vulture populations were stable and white-rumped vultures increased in number. All three species, however, remain critically endangered. The latest tallies will arrive next month.

“The census has become a beacon of hope for conservationists working to rescue vultures from the brink,” stated Dr. Hugo Rainey, WCS technical advisor to the Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project. “Nowhere else in Asia do vultures have such a promising future.”

Plummeting vulture populations are the current norm in Asia. The main culprit for their decline is the widespread use of an anti-inflammatory drug called Dicloflenac. The scavenging birds have been eating cattle meat laced with the drug, which causes fatal kidney failure in vultures. As a result, some species are nearing extinction.

Thankfully, Cambodia just says no to Dicloflenac. But beyond the drug, there is a growing pesticide problem that is harming the birds. Efforts to protect the country’s vultures are intensifying. Community members stand guard over vulture nests and earn a small fee for their help. The birds have fortunate timing, because they breed during the dry season when local people are looking for extra income.

The Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project has also been setting up feeding stations, or “vulture restaurants,” to serve the birds pestide- and drug-free beef. Besides getting rave reviews from the birds, these hot dining spots bring in tourists who get a glimpse of the pecking patrons up close.


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