By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Nawalparasi, Nepal
The birds resemble a 'grotesque gathering of clergymen'
As the early morning mist lifts on the farmlands at the edge of the jungle, Yam Bahadur Nepali embarks on a job which many would find difficult but which, for him, is a regular chore.
He wheels his tricycle cart to collect the carcass of an old and sick cow which died during the night. It is to be fed to the vultures, under a unique initiative to conserve the scavenging birds. It is called the "vulture restaurant".
With some difficulty Yam Bahadur and his wife wheel the heavy beast past houses and down across wet paddy fields to the vulture feeding area.
The "restaurant" is a big grassy area surrounded by tall, fragrant sal trees. The peaceful scene is broken only by the cattle skeletons scattered around - and the vultures nestled above.
Nepali ornithologists have established it as a place where vultures can eat healthily.
Two of the seven vulture species in the Indian subcontinent - slender-billed and white-rumped - have declined catastrophically in number and are now endangered, explained ornithologist Dhan Bahadur "DB" Chaudhary.
"In 1997 in eastern parts of Nepal there were about 67 nests," he says. "And in four or five years, in 2001, there was zero.
"So that rapidly they declined from India, Nepal and Pakistan. And over 12 years they started declining - now more than 95% of the vultures' number has gone down."
Scientists recently pinpointed the cause - the drug, diclofenac.
Farmers often give it to their cows as a painkiller. But if the cows die soon afterwards, the drug is deadly for the vultures which feed on their flesh. Mr Chaudhary says they rapidly die of kidney failure and gout.
As Hem Sagar Baral, executive director of Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) explains, Nepal and India have now banned diclofenac because it was harming the vultures. It has been replaced by a safe drug called meloxicam.
"It is also anti-inflammatory but has been tested against vultures and other birds of prey and general birds and does not cause damage to these birds," he says.
As Yam Bahadur skins the carcass, we go into a spacious, brand-new observation hide. With us are several of the villagers who serve as volunteers on the project committee. We watch as the vultures wait.
After half an hour we are still waiting. A stray dog starts feeding on the carcass but seems worried and keeps barking.
The 'restaurant' has no shortage of food suppliers
The birds gain confidence and 22 of them land, still just watching the dog. Nearly all are the endangered White-rumped Vultures but there is also a massive creature - the biggest, the Himalayan Griffon Vulture.
They look like a rather grotesque gathering of clergymen with their blackish coats and white "collars".
Then, suddenly, they close in on the cow's corpse. It is like a rugby scrum of vultures, all wanting to gorge on the carcass, fighting with each other, the strongest in front, the weaker behind.
One vulture attacks another which has a long strand of raw meat dangling from its mouth, already half-swallowed.
The scavenging birds jump clumsily around, their wings outstretched. I tell Mr Chaudhary I think they are truly ugly animals.
"Yes, they are ugly looking, but they are really helpful for us," he says. "See - within half an hour they finished eating all that dead animal. Only the skeleton is left. It is really helpful to clean the nature."
Nepalis even nickname these birds "kuchikar", meaning a broom.
The villagers on the project's committee are engrossed by the spectacle. One is a woman farmer, Tila Devi Bhusal.
"Traditionally we see the vulture as a very bad bird," she says. "If it passes your house, then the house has to be purified. They can bring danger.
"But that belief is disappearing. People realise that vultures eat rotten things and we must preserve them."
The vulture restaurant has many volunteers but only two full-time employees.
One is Yam Bahadur who looks after the cows when they are living, not only when they die.
The birds bide their time before pouncing
The project buys elderly or sick cows from farmers, looks after them humanely and treats them, if necessary, with the safe drug, meloxicam.
The cows, considered sacred by Hindus, die a natural death.
The other employee is Ishwari Chaudhary, the educational officer. He is spreading the vulture conservation message among villagers and in veterinary shops.
"We tell them about the new medicine, meloxicam, and how we can save the birds by using it," he says.
The banned drug diclofenac is still being rounded up all over Nepal. Meloxicam is more expensive, but it is injected in much smaller doses which partly compensates.
The numbers of endangered vultures are rising again.
Mr Chaudhary says that before the project was opened, he used to see a maximum of 72 vultures around one carcass.
"Once we established the vulture restaurant, in five or six months we found double that number - the maximum number I have recorded is about 156, all at the same time on the same carcass."
BCN, with support from others like Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, now wants to open more "vulture restaurants" - and scientists in India too are now showing interest in the idea.