Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Warnings From Vanishing Vultures

KARACHI, Feb 25 (IPS/IFEJ) – “The thought of my carcass being pecked at by vultures isn’t at all pleasant,” said Bapsi Sidhwa, a leading Pakistani diasporic writer now living in the United States. She was referring to the ancient Parsi funerary rite of ‘sky burial’.

“There are many Parsis like me in Pakistan and in India who will be only too glad to see the last of this outmoded and impractical custom,” she told IPS. With vulture populations rapidly dwindling over the sub-continent, Sidhwa’s wish is already coming true.

Parsis are descendants of Iranian Zoroastrians who migrated to the Indian sub-continent over 1,000 years ago. Zoroastrians hold fire and earth to be sacred elements, not to be polluted by corpses.

Consequently, burial and cremation are unacceptable to Parsis and their dead are consigned to vultures by placing them on mountain tops or on specially built ‘Towers of Silence’.

“There are not enough vultures to eat the dead!” says Cyrus Cowasjee, who is in the shipping business. Some 15 years ago he had offered to set up a crematorium for his community in Karachi, but the proposal was shot down by the Parsi orthodoxy.
While an estimated 2,500 Parsis reside in Karachi, the biggest concentration of the community is in the Indian city of Mumbai where some 70,000 individuals live.

Apart from dread of the rite, Cowasjee and Sidhwa see impracticalities in leaving corpses to vultures in a congested metropolis like Karachi. ‘’One would like to be ecologically correct,’’ said Sidhwa. ‘’But the custom was not meant for populous cities.’’

Despite the shrinking population of Parsis in Pakistan – from the 10,000 at the time of independence from colonial rule in 1947 to the present 2,500 – Cowasjee says “there are still not sufficient birds to do the job”.

The problem is more serious in Mumbai where, on average, three Parsis die each day. The community there has had to set up giant solar reflectors to hasten decomposition of corpses on the Towers of Silence built there.

But Parsis are not the only people adversely affected by declining vultures. They form an important link in the food chain and also act as nature’s sanitisers – facts apparently recognised by Zoroastrians 3,000 years ago.

Their extinction, say environmentalists, may have enormous economic, cultural and health impacts. Two of the seven vulture species, the White-backed vulture and the Long-billed vulture, are already on the ‘critically endangered’ list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Munir Z. Virani, programme director in Africa of the U.S.-based The Peregrine Fund (TPF), which works to conserve birds of prey, said in an e-mail interview: “Every species is designed to occupy a specific ecological niche.’’

“Vultures are specialised feeders in the ecosystem with the ability to consume carcasses, within minutes, to the bone. Without vultures, these carcasses would rot and be taken over by disease – causing organisms that cause anthrax and botulism,” explained Virani.

The mystery of vanishing vultures over South Asia was cracked by Virani who led research in the Punjab province of Pakistan after the decline was first noted in 1997 by the prestigious Bombay Natural History Society, India.

“It was in April 2003 that we discovered that veterinary diclofenac was the main reason that white-backed vultures were dying,” said Virani, who is currently with the ornithology section in the National Museum of Kenya. Diclofenac is a painkiller commonly given to sick livestock.

While there may be other reasons for the vanishing vultures, Virani attributes the decline in South Asia to birds ingesting contaminated carcasses. “We collected dead vultures on a daily basis over four years, examining some 1,000 dead vultures,” said Virani.

TPF found that 80 percent of the dead birds had a condition called “visceral gout” in which a chalky white paste of uric acid engulfs internal organs. But the cause eluded the scientists who were baffled by the fact that there was no ready evidence of a pathogen.

The breakthrough came in December 2002 when a vulture died of gout in a U.S. zoo after being treated with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, said Virani. “Our survey showed that veterinary diclofenac was the most commonly used form of medication on cattle and caused gout in vultures resulting in their deaths.’’

By 2006 diclofenac was banned, but environmentalists fear that it is still being used across South Asia. “It is available in the smaller towns across the country,” confirmed Uzma Khan, manager at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Pakistan, talking to IPS from Lahore over phone.

“The WWF, along with IUCN and a few other non-governmental organisations, were very active in lobbying for the ban. We emphasised that the drug must be completely off the market. But we could not enforce the ban and hoped the government would support us,’’ said Khan.

Khan blames the easy availability of the drug on the “weak implementation” of the ban. “I’ve written to the ministry of health, to the provincial secretaries and to the drug control board, not just once but a number of times. I have never received so much as a confirmation or acknowledgement of receipt of my letter.”

To save the White-backed vulture, WWF set up a breeding aviary in Changa Manga, a planted forest, 70 km from Lahore.

“We have a flock of 11 and we’ve been able to pair off eight of them,” said Khan. The WWF hopes to capture around 20 pairs “although it is becoming exceedingly difficult for our field teams to sight these birds,’’ she said.

Khan is now pinning her hopes on a pair that has started nesting, though it may take another year before they start breeding – and four more years before chicks reach maturity. Vultures lay just one egg annually, but in captivity, if the egg is removed, they may lay a second one.

“There is still time to save the species, provided the region is cleansed of diclofenac,’’ said Khan.

But there are many hurdles, starting with resistance from pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the drug. Shabbir Ahmed, general manager at Star Laboratories, a manufacturer, has filed a suit against the ban on diclofenac. “We’re not going to rest till we can get the drug back in the market,” he said, talking with IPS over phone from Lahore.

Ahmed calls the TPF’s research findings erroneous. “The decline in vulture population is because there are no carcasses around for them to feed on. Today even carcasses are valuable and skins and bones fetch good prices.’’

Ahmed said even if veterinary diclofenac is banned, use of the drugs by humans will continue.

That is a worry shared by Khan. She said it was important that the use of the alternate drug ‘meloxicam’ be encouraged. “It’s slightly more expensive, but if used on a large scale the price will come down.”

Meloxicam is already being used successfully in Nepal where it has been found to be harmless to vultures. Another borrowing from Nepal is the ‘vulture restaurant’, set up at Kawasoti, about 100 km southwest of Kathmandu, that provides non-toxic cattle carcasses for hungry vultures.

Pakistan’s Dharti Development Society, a non-governmental organisation, in collaboration with United Nation Development Programme’s Global Environment Facility, plans to establish a vulture restaurant in the mountainous Karonjhar area in Sindh province.

“Vulture mortality can be reduced significantly if the birds are fed with diclofenac-free food,” said Virani.

But, said Virani, vulture restaurants can, at best, serve as a “stop-gap measure” and cannot be the “real solution” to conserving the large, ungainly birds. For one thing, he said, they are effective only when the birds are breeding. “Because they have chicks to feed they are tied down to the nest.”

Once the breeding season is over, the vultures scatter over a wide range and it becomes difficult to stop them from getting to contaminated carcasses.

Virani left Pakistan “because there were no more vultures to monitor”. “I am afraid your government let the vultures down. They didn’t act on time!” said Virani.
But there is hope in the increasingly frequent sightings of the two endangered vulture species in Karonjhar.

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development)

Original article here.