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PITHAULI, Nepal (Reuters) - In the village of Pithauli, surrounded by ripening mustard fields, a woman hauls a cow carcass on a trolley, drops it in an open field, then runs and hides in a nearby hut as dozens of vultures swoop down.
In under half an hour, the carcass has been reduced to picked bones by the dun-coloured birds, occasionally squabbling as they feed.
The site is one of a handful of vulture "restaurants" opened to save the birds, which help keep the environment clean by disposing of carrion, from extinction -- and at the same time help impoverished villages become self-sufficient.
A drug called diclofenac, used for treating inflammation in cattle, causes kidney failure and death in vultures which feed on their carcasses. As a result, two species of vulture -- the White-rumped and Slender-billed -- are now critically endangered in Nepal, as well as in Pakistan and India.
"If the situation continues the two species will be extinct in ten years," said Hem Sagar Baral, chief of the Nepalese Ornithological Union.
"We may maintain certain minimum numbers but we'll never see the numbers we had 20 years ago."
Two decades ago there were about 50,000 nesting pairs of the two vulture species in Nepal. Now, barely 500 pairs remain.
Their steep decline is blamed on the widespread use of diclofenac, which was banned in 2006, and loss of habitat, with the kapok trees they use for nesting vanishing fast to meet demand from factories producing match sticks and plywood.
Five years ago, Bird Conservation Nepal came up with the idea of "restaurants" as places where the birds could feed on safe carcasses.
Pithauli, some 100 km (60 miles) southwest of the Nepali capital of Kathmandu, was the site of the first such feeding station, which now number six around the country.
The number of nesting pairs there has grown to 46 compared with just 17 before the feeding site was opened five years ago, said Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary, who coordinates the project.
"When we started I had no idea how it would do. I am happy that we have come to this point," he said.
Baral agreed that the "eateries" and the ban on the drug had helped, with numbers stabilising after an initial rise, but noted that they still remain under threat.
For one thing, the ban on diclofenac use is being flouted by giving cattle a version of the drug intended for humans, meaning it is still taking its toll on the birds.
In addition, despite the vulture's positive depiction in Hindu mythology as fighting to free Sita, wife of the god-king Rama, from the clutches of a demon, the birds are widely reviled as ugly and the harbingers of bad luck.
Residents in Pithauli, a village of more than 6,000 people, tell how villagers carried out special "purification" rites when vultures perched on the roofs of their homes.
When an old villager died a few days after a vulture had alighted on his house, it was widely believed to have resulted from his failure to perform the proper ritual.
But in an effort to win over the villagers, the organisation that started the feeding stations provides training in income-generating activities such as beekeeping, trail and bridge construction, and tourist guide services.
They also give support to schools and public health offices.
"Initially, it was not easy. But the villagers started to support us gradually as we launched community activities for the local people," Chaudhary said.
Authorities have also set up a vulture breeding centre in the Chitwan National Park in the neighbouring jungle resort of Kasara, where 60 birds, captured in the wild, are being raised. Ultimately, they plan to release chicks into the wild.
The vulture restaurant has become a tourist attraction in the poverty-stricken village, and admission fees from visitors -- who last year numbered some 2,000 -- help support it.
Additional help comes from authorities who buy old and sick cattle from the villagers for $3 a head, a modest income. These animals are kept on a farm in a community-run forest and offered to the birds when they die naturally since killing a cow is illegal in deeply Hindu Nepal.
Despite the gains, though, some villagers remain skeptical.
"Why save a bird that feeds on dead animals?" said 34-year-old Chet Nath Gandell, noting that the birds sometimes leave parts of the carcasses unfinished.
"Stinking carrion pollutes the air and we are forced to breathe in a slow poison."
For a link to a slideshow: here
Editing by Elaine Lies and Paul Casciato