Vanishing Indian vultures threaten Zoroastrian rites
A decade ago, vultures were almost as common as sparrows in India. Their screeching, as they ripped into animal carcasses, could be heard in cities across the vast South Asian country.
But a mystery virus has changed that and, one expert says, threatens to push the gawky black birds to the brink of extinction. In 10 years, India has lost more than 95 percent of its vulture population. “Their decline has been truly dramatic. At one time, there were tens of thousands of vultures in India,” Vibhu Prakash, a specialist in birds of prey at the Bombay Natural History Society said. “Today, they are a threatened species. They are down to just a few thousands which is very unusual because vultures are very hardy creatures who can live on petrified carcasses.”
Vultures are considered sacred by many in the world’s second most populous nation. The dramatic drop in the population has created a crisis for the country’s Parsi community, which leaves its dead in stone towers to be eaten by vultures because its religion forbids burial and cremation. Parsis or Zoroastrians regard fire, earth and water as sacred and believe the vulture helps release the spirits of their ancestors. In Bombay, home to one of the country’s largest Parsi populations, the community has installed solar panels at the Towers of Silence to use the sun’s rays to dispose of their dead. “They are also thinking of enclosing the Towers of Silence with captive vultures,” says Prakash.
Religious considerations aside, ornithologists and environmentalists say the dramatic drop in their numbers has enormous implications for the ecosystem across the globe. Vultures play a key role in keeping cities clean because they eat animal carcasses in a country with few resources to dispose of corpses. Without them, the bodies could pile up, leading to anthrax and other diseases, some experts say. “Vultures perform a vital function as scavengers,” says R.D. Jakati, chief wildlife warden in the northern state of Haryana, which has seen a sudden fall in its vulture population. “And if the vultures disappear, there can be disease epidemics which can affect humans,” he adds. —CNN