India has always been a land with a robust vulture population, owing to its 500 million cattle population (almost half of the world’s 1.3 billion) and the taboo associated with eating beef (80% of the country is Hindu). However this situation has drastically changed in just a generation.
From 1992 to 2007, the Indian population of some 400 million vultures of 9 species has dropped 99.9% due to the widespread use of a drug used to treat inflammatory disorders and pain in cattle called diclofenac. The indigenous White-rumped Vulture alone, with a population of some 80 million, was described in 1985 as “possibly the most abundant large bird of prey in the world.” Today the White-rumped Vulture is listed as Critically Endangered. Tragically, a vulture that eats the flesh of a cow to whom diclofenac was recently administered quickly perishes from acute kidney failure.
This vulture population collapse has led to severe problems in India from undisposed cattle corpses. Whereas previously a bull could be cleaned in as little as 20 minutes by a pack of vultures, now the carcass putrifies and may cause water contamination from runoff. Moreover, the open niche has led to a sharp rise in the numbers of roaming wild dogs. Whereas vultures are an ecological dead-end for pestilence owing to their super-acidic digestive system, dogs and rats are much more liable to spread disease. Anthrax, plague, and the most fatal disease known to man: rabies, have seen a marked rise since the beginning of the vulture crisis. Today in India, 30,000 people die from rabies each year, more than half the world’s total.
Besides health issues associated with dead domesticated Aurochs for wider India, a small minority of practicing Zoroastrians is also suffering in another way. Zoroastrianism was supplanted in its native Iran by Islam in the late 1st millennium, but a surviving population migrated east to what is now the most populous city in India, Mumbai. This population of about 70,000 Parsi Zoroastrians has some very valuable possessions, among which is 54 acres of forest purchased centuries ago, now residing in India’s affluent neighborhood Malabar Hill. The Parsi followers of Zoroaster use this forest as a setting for 3 “Dakhma” or “Towers of Silence” by which they expose their dead to vultures for sky burial. Once the dead are skeletonized, their bones are pushed into a hole in the center along with some limestone dust to be slowly disintegrated and interred. However things on the towers have not been going so smoothly since the vulture population is a shadow of its former self. “There was a time when the vultures would eat up the flesh within 45 minutes,” said one odor-offended Malabar Hill resident, “Now, it takes days despite the installation of solar panels to accelerate the process.”
That’s why Parsi leaders have been in negotiation with the Indian government to refine and revive the practice of sky burial by building specialized vulture aviaries. As of February 2014, little has happened to appropriate the $5 million it is estimated the aviaries would cost to build and run over 15 years. However, the cost is offset by the steady supply of food for the animals “Most vulture aviaries have to spend huge sums to buy meat, but for us that’s free because the vultures will be feeding on human bodies — on us.” Whatever the matter, Parsi leaders are pushing ahead because of the essential importance of restoring the tradition.