Eight slender-billed vulture nests have been discovered in Stung Treng province, forming what Wildlife Conservation Society officials say is the only known breeding colony of the extremely rare bird in Southeast Asia.
Joe Walston, country program director for WCS, said members of his organization working as part of the Cambodia Vulture Preservation Project, which WCS coordinates with the Ministry of Environment and the Forestry Administration, found the nests in mid-January.
“We are now a little more confident that we can protect this species,” Walston said.
Local villagers are being paid to protect the nests while the eggs hatch and the young vultures learn to fly, Walston said.
“We get a clear result and local communities get a direct benefit,” he said of the village protection scheme.
The slender-billed vulture has been listed as “critically endangered” by the World Conservation Union, in large part because of the massive toll the anti-inflammatory medication Diclofenac has taken on the birds.
The inexpensive drug is often given to cows for a wide range of ailments, but it destroys the kidneys of vultures that feed on dead cattle, Walston said.
Walston said there used to be thousands of slender-billed vultures in Asia, but because of Diclofenac, the population has plummeted by about 98 percent in ten years.
“The population has crashed so quickly and so steeply that there is no accurate count available of the worldwide population,” he added.
But Tan Setha, WCS project manager for Preah Vihear province, said that a lack of food, not Diclofenac, poses the greatest threat to vultures in Cambodia.
To combat this problem a “vulture restaurant” program was established in 2003 in Preah Vihear’s Chhep district. Each month, a cow or two is killed and left for Cambodia’s five species of vulture to feast on, Tan Setha said.
“When we kill[ed] the first cow, just one vulture come to eat,” Tan Setha said, but now up to 89 vultures can be found at a carcass, he added.
Tan Setha said that a survey taken last July in Preah Vihear, Stung Treng, Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces found only 240 vultures of all types.
Chou Pi Chhoura, Stung Treng provincial penal police chief, said his officers are working in conjunction with NGOs and forestry officials to protect the rare birds.
The birds do have one thing in their favor, Chou Pi Chhoura said: Cambodians typically don’t eat vultures because they are considered ugly and dirty animals.