Four new "vulture restaurants" have opened in India to provide the critically endangered and ecologically important birds with food that won't kill them.

Vultures used to be a fixture in Indian skies, but now the scavengers are almost gone due to a commonly used veterinary drug called diclofenac. An anti-inflammatory for humans and livestock, diclofenac causes renal failure in vultures that consume the carcasses of animals treated with the drug. During the past 20 years, 99.9 percent of Asia's vultures have died off, primarily due to diclofenac poisoning. As they have disappeared, diseases, rats and wild dogs have increased, threatening human lives and safety.

India banned the drug's use in 2006, but it is still readily available and used by farmers, either out of habit or because they do not understand its ecological effects.

One proven way to help vultures is to open up "restaurants" for the birds, protected sites where they can be fed diclofenac-free meat. Of the four new restaurants recently opened in India, one is in the state of Maharashtra and three are in Punjab.

"We buy the carcasses—of anything from dead buffaloes, cows and bulls to other animals—from villagers and place them on bricked platforms with boundary walls at these restaurants," Punjab wildlife ranger Ramesh Chander told The Indian Express. This provides the birds with safe places to eat as well as to nest and breed. The three sites in Punjab are all near fresh water, so the birds can bathe themselves after their messy meals.

The restaurant in Maharashtra, which officially opens later this month after a brief test late last year, is a pilot project whose success depends on forest officials being able to acquire enough diclofenac-free carcasses from local villagers. Officials are paying around $67 per carcass, about three times what local slaughterhouses pay for the same animals. They have a budget of about $1,100 for the first year, according to a report from GlobalPost. All carcasses will be tested for the toxic drug before being left out for the birds.

The restaurants may provide safe food, but it won't solve the problem if local farmers are still using diclofenac. "The carcasses lying there may be free from diclofenac, but what if the vultures go and feed themselves somewhere else? The whole purpose of the project will be defeated," bird expert Adesh Shivkar said to the Mumbai-based news organization, Mid Day.

Diclofenac has been used in the U.S., but the vultures on this continent (called "New World vultures") are not very closely related to the "Old World vultures" in Asia, and may not share the same weakness as their Asian counterparts.

Vulture restaurants have previously been established in Pakistan, Nepal and South Africa where they have been shown to at least slow down the death rate of local vultures. With the birds so close to the brink of extinction in these countries, that might be good enough for now.

Previously in Extinction Countdown: Another fatal blow to Asian vultures

Photo: The Indian white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis), a critically endangered species that has lost 99.9 percent of its population due to diclofenac poisoning. Via Wikipedia