Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Vultures That Vanish

Spare a thought for the scrawny vultures — those once-familiar birds of prey that used to circle lazily high in the air, scanning for anything to scavenge. In my youth, they even perched on tall palm trees in suburban Mumbai, peering disdainfully at the goings-on below. People may be forgiven for wondering why anyone should shed a tear about the disappearance of these ungainly beasts, with their scruffy, elongated necks and menacing beaks.

Just a decade ago, there were 85 million vultures in India; they are now estimated to number just a paltry 3-4,000. The one community that is only too well aware of this phenomenon are the Parsis, Zoroastrians who are the descendants of exiles from Persia and still dispose of their dead in towers of silence in Mumbai and a few other cities. There, they expose them on open platforms where vultures, kites, and crows are supposed to dispose of them cleanly, speedily, and efficiently.

Due to the rampant urbanization and the proliferation of high-rise buildings, vultures can no longer land and take off as they once used to from the two towers of silence in Mumbai, where most of the world’s Parsis are based. In city after city, throughout India and Pakistan, these towers are being closed. But there is another, far more sinister, reason for the disappearance of these birds, which lies in the countryside.

Over the last decade, the 155-year-old Bombay National History Society (BNHS), one of the most reputed wildlife research organizations in South Asia, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the United Kingdom, the Zoological Society of London, and the Peregrine Fund in the United States, began to put their heads together to find out what was responsible for the sudden decline in the vulture population. The Peregrine Fund traced the cause in Pakistan to an anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac, which veterinarians had introduced into India at the same time. A much smaller threat are airplanes, including those of the Indian Air Force, which hit the birds at high altitudes.

“Link between death and life”

If cattle, buffaloes, sheep, or goats who are injected with this commonly used pain-relieving drug die of natural causes and are consumed by vultures, it causes the birds to suffer from dehydration. Consequently, uric acid forms, leading to gout in the viscera and eventual kidney failure and death. It does not, as may be imagined, lead to accumulation of chemicals in the body, like DDT; even a single ingestion can prove fatal. Scientists show that if even 1 percent of carcasses contain diclofenac, it can lead to such a precipitate decline in this raptor population. BNHS’ examination of 1,800 samples from around the country show the actual prevalence in carcasses is ten times higher.

India, Nepal, and Pakistan, in the short period of 15 years, have lost 95 percent of their vulture population. There are eight species in the region. In 2000, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed three species as critically endangered, which is the highest category under risk. Two years later, all three were similarly listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, which also includes the tiger and one-horned rhino.

At a recent launch of a shortened version of his film entitled The Vanishing Vultures in Mumbai, the Delhi-based filmmaker Mike Pandey pointed out why it was important to save these unpopular birds. Although they are dismissed as being dirty scavengers, “They are the vital link between death and life,” he said, because in their absence, carrion lies unattended and breeds diseases, several of which may be unknown to humans in future. This is yet another reminder of nature’s role in recycling potentially harmful waste. A flock of vultures has the ability to dispose of an ox-sized animal in just 30 minutes. “We have lost a critical link in the food chain,” Pandey warned.

According to Dr. Asad Rahmani, the BNHS Director, who had noticed a decline in this raptor species at the world-famous Bharatpur bird sanctuary much earlier, India, which has the largest cattle population in the world, is especially at risk. As many as 10 to 20 million cattle that die of natural causes lie and rot in the sun and are preyed upon by dogs and crows, Rahmani explained. Pandey observed that these “are breeding grounds which can unleash pathogens throughout the world.” He has visited villages in Gujarat where 18 children have died of rabies — the dogs that carried this highly communicable disease could conceivably have consumed such carrion. Anthrax, which caused a huge scare after the September 11 attacks in the United States, has once again surfaced in Gujarat.

Diclofenac is cheap, it’s easy accessibility is largely the problem. There are some 25 companies that formulate this drug and 110 companies that sell 25 crore rupees (roughly US$5.6 million) worth of the drug annually. The companies claim that it does not form a major part of their operations and could cooperate, provided the government subsidized their switch-over to a substitute called meloxicam, which is used in the West.

However, at the Indian National Board for Wildlife meeting in March last year, under pressure from wildlife enthusiasts, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who chairs the board, ordered that its use be discontinued in the country within six months. However, the Drugs Controller has still not acted on this directive and the Agriculture Ministry also remains lethargic. Meloxicam, which is harmless, is two-and-a-half times more expensive. The board is meeting at the end of April 2006, where ornithologists hope that some firmness will be shown.

Chris Bowden, director of the vulture program with the RSPB, is spending a month in India and was also present at the launch of the film, he cited how the price of meloxicam could decline if it was produced on a larger scale. Diclofenac is banned in most countries, including Africa, with the exception being South Asia. He recommended either subsidizing meloxicam or raising the price of diclofenac, but the problem is that it is used by thousands of poor herders.

The vanishing act

He mentioned how the RSPB has taken the initiative in starting two vulture breeding centers in two Indian states. However, Nita Shah, the BNHS Vulture Advocacy program officer, observed that vultures breed very slowly — they only give birth to one chick a year, and it takes up to four years for it to mature — so that “we cannot hope for the population to be restored to its original size, at least within our lifetime.” The RSPB has raised ?150,000 (roughly US$265,000) for each of these two aviaries, which is why only two have been established when twice are many are required in India and another six in South Asia.

The BNHS and the British ornithologists’ organizations are mounting a massive campaign to save vultures, of which Pandey’s film, which is the first of a 26-episode series on the local channel Doordarshan called Earth Matters, is part of. Pandey asserts that the decline of vultures in South Asia is the fastest extinction known in the biological world, it’s even faster than the dodo. And Shah adds, “It is necessary to pass the message to other South Asian countries, which are looking to India to take the lead in saving this bird. We hope that this film will hit your hearts as much as it did mine.”

At the Vatavaran South Asian film festival in New Delhi last November, organized by the Centre for Media Studies and India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests, there were two full-length documentaries on this little-known problem, both of which introduced the theme by depicting the funerary rites of Parsis in Mumbai. One of the films, The Last Flight, by Nutan Manmohan, won the best wildlife documentary award.

Darryl D’Monte

Original article here