Mumbai’s towers of silence have fallen truly silent. For centuries, the Zoroastrian Parsis have laid their dead to rest atop these towers in South Mumbai. After paying their respects to their lost ones, the bodies are left for the vultures – which can clean a human corpse to the bone in hours.
It’s believed that being consumed by the vulture can liberate the soul. But today, there are barely any vultures remaining. And so, the Parsis have turned to the electric crematorium. In fact, since 2001, a solar reflector has been put to use to speed up the process of decomposition in the absence of vultures.
Man’s innovation aside, this bodes poorly for the ecology at large.
In the 1980s, there were about 40 million vultures in India and Nepal alone. By the mid-2000s, this had dropped to under 100,000. Of the nine species of vultures in India, three are Critically Endangered – a single step away from being extinct in the wild. Of these, the Oriental White-Rumped Vulture, ‘Gyps bengalensis’, has fewer than 15,000 remaining.
For years, the vulture’s 95 percent decline baffled scientists. India, a country where less than four percent of the 500 million cattle are consumed by humans, should have had an abundance of food for the winged scavenger. To complicate matters, the vulture’s decline occurred across South Asia and parts of South East Asia; in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Southern Vietnam.
The signs of a sick vulture are themselves, grim. The bird’s neck droops, appearing sick and lethargic – unable to move, attempting to raise their heads before letting them fall again. Their kidneys have failed. Yet, the mighty bird of prey still manages to fly short distances and feed its young.
A team of American and Pakistani scientists led by Dr Lindsay Oaks reached a breakthrough in 2003 when they identified renal failure as the leading cause of death of the Oriental White-backed Vulture. The cause? A pharmaceutical drug named Diclofenac.
Diclofenac is a nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drug, administered to cattle to take the edge off their pain. It’s a veterinary drug in Europe, but in South Asia, poor farmers used it to keep their animals working even when they grew old and tired. As Lindsay’s study confirmed, this drug is fatal to vultures even in small doses.
The effect on the bird’s population was drastic. The drug was transmitted to the bird’s young, resulting in a ratio of 9:1 between adults and juveniles. In China, Bangladesh and Malaysia, the white-rumped vulture is regionally extinct. Virtually everywhere else, their numbers have seen steep declines.
In 2006, India banned the veterinary use of Diclofenac. Other South Asian countries soon followed. But the illicit use of the drug continued, until 2015, when multi-use vials were also banned. the vulture’s population decline has since slowed down.
It’s true that you only know what you had when it’s gone. Without the vultures, feral dogs, crows and maggots have stepped in to supply the demand for decomposers. But this has also accompanied a rise in the incidence of rabies – with dogs catching the virus from the dead carcases that the vultures had no problems with.
Realising the value of the vulture led a research project to do the maths. The Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) calculated that, compared to the cost of running a carcass-disposal plant every for a year, the average vulture was contributing between Rs.585,000-696,000 ($9022-10734) in a lifetime. You often can’t put a price on Nature, but imagine the impact South Asia’s erstwhile 79 million vultures had on the ecology.
There’s already a human death toll. A 2008 study established a link between the rise in rabies incidence to the decline of vulture populations. With up to 30,000 people dying each year from rabies in India, we need the vulture more than ever.
Thankfully, conservation efforts have been gaining momentum. The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has set up Vulture Safe Zones across the country, and there are ongoing breeding programmes in Haryana, Assam, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh.
In 2016, the Gyps Vulture Reintroduction Programme was initiated by the Minister for Environment. It is the first programme in Asia where a vulture was reintroduced into the wild.
Conservationists hope that changing perceptions about the vulture will play a part in its conservation.
Vultures have long accompanied death. Bourke and White’s famous photographs of Calcutta after the Partition riots feature vultures prominently. In many cultures, they are thought of as bad omens.
But the Parsis see vultures as a part of the natural cycle – hence their willingness for their dead to be consumed by them. And it’s not just the Parsis who consign their dead to the sky. Tibetan Buddhists also practise ‘sky burial’, though, since the Cultural Revolution, it has been outlawed by China. Nevertheless, the practice persists though under heavy media regulations.
In mythology, the vulture is most prominently known through a cameo in the Ramayana. Jatayu was a valiant bird who tried to protect Sita from being abducted by Ravana. In Jatayu’s honour, the Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre was named – and it is the world’s largest of its kind, featuring up to 214 vultures.
In Nepal, a unique project attempts to change the public perception of the vulture – by taking you on a flight with them. You can go paragliding, and feed a vulture in mid-air. And every year, on September 5, the International Vulture Awareness Day is celebrated.
Vultures have been around for over 20 million years. They are Nature’s most efficient recycler. Keeping them a part of our ecosystem will benefit both man and bird.
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