Vultures have been dwindling throughout Asia for years. The unlucky scavengers have been eating cattle carcasses laced with an anti-inflammatory drug that is fatal to the birds. The drug—dicloflenac—has driven some Asian vulture populations to near-extinction.

But good news is now soaring in the skies above Cambodia. Researchers report that record numbers of vultures have been counted in Cambodia’s annual vulture census. Almost 300 birds of three different species are flying and foraging across the northern and eastern plains of the country.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists all three of Cambodia’s vulture species—white-rumped, red-headed, and slender billed—as “Critically Endangered.” Still, the census, conducted by the WCS-led Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project, shows that the country is home to the only increasing population of these birds in Asia.

“By protecting nests and supplementing food supplies, we are saving some of the world’s largest and most charismatic birds,” stated Dr. Hugo Rainey, WCS technical adviser to the project. “Nowhere else in Asia do vultures have such a promising future.”

Numbers for white-rumped vultures are rising, while red-headed and slender billed vulture populations are stable. And after these birds’ latest breeding season, more happy news may hatch out of Cambodia next year. A total of 36 vulture chicks fledged from colonies across the north and east of the country. That’s almost twice the amount of fledglings from last season.

But diclofenac isn’t the only threat to these big, and oddly charming, birds. Since 2008, more than 20 vultures have perished from pesticides. Once again, the scavengers are consuming unintentionally poisoned meat. Domestic animals come into contact with agricultural pesticides and die. Vultures eat the dead animals and become sick themselves.

“Cambodia is the only Asian country where diclofenac is rarely used and vulture populations are managed,” said Song Chansocheat, Cambodia's Ministry of Environment and Vulture project manager. “We have been monitoring vultures since 2004 and there have been increasing numbers of poisoned birds recently. Educating people about the risk to wildlife and people from incorrect use of poisons is important.”

Helping keep the vulture populations aloft, local Cambodians are protecting nests and even providing the birds with feeding stations, or “vulture restaurants.” These restaurants don’t have chefs per se, but they do attract tourists, which helps boost the local economy.
To read more on vultures and diclofenac poisoning, see “Rare Vulture Returns to Cambodian skies.