Since the last five years, the Maharashtra government has been catering to VIP clientele at restaurants inside forests and wildlife sanctuaries. The restaurants are a 650 sq m stony ground at the centre of a clearing right next to a water source. The menu includes cattle carcass, free of diclofenac, a painkiller. The diners wear white ruffled collars, but are under a metre tall, weigh between 5 to 7 kg, and are popularly known as vultures.
The first such “vulture restaurant” had come up in 2015 at Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary in Raigad district in response to videos of white-rumped vulture chicks starving to death in the western ghats. There are four other such restaurants at Gadhchiroli and one at Harsul in Nashik district.
However, the initiative taken to conserve the endangered species is barely managing to stay afloat. Five years down the line, the forest department has reported a reduction in the number of vultures visiting the restaurants.
The restaurant in Harsul, which initially saw over 100 vultures feasting at the restaurant, now sees around 50 to 60 of them, officials said, adding that the birds may have found food elsewhere.
“Raptors fly till 100 km and one cannot rule out birds visiting from neighbouring states like Chhattisgarh. If any restaurant has witnessed a fall in the vultures’ visiting, there is a possibility that the raptors found food somewhere else,” a forest official from Gadchiroli said.
The success of these restaurants also depends on the availability of carcasses. “On an average, we keep carcasses for the vultures to feed on every 20 to 30 days. We are dependent on villagers to provide us with carcasses. Our next step is to incentivise the exchange… the idea is to pay Rs 500 to the villager who provides diclofenac-free dead animal,” Shivaji Phule, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Nashik (West), said.
The scheme, meanwhile, is working well in Gadchiroli. Officials said people inform the forest department in case of the death of an animal in their village. “The department tests the animal for diclofenac and if found compatible, buys it from the owner and transports it to the restaurant,” an official said. He added that while the number of vultures visiting the Harsul restaurant has reduced, he has spotted a group of 50 vultures north of Harsul, in Peth tehsil, bordering Gujarat. Following this, Phule has proposed to open a restaurant in Peth.
The population of white-backed vultures — once the most common large raptor in the world — has declined by more than 99 per cent across the Indian sub-continent, mainly due to the use of diclofenac in veterinary practice. The vultures, who eat carcasses of animals treated with diclofenac, suffer kidney failure. While the manufacture of veterinary diclofenac was banned in 2006, the drug made for humans is still available in the market.
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