India’s Waning Vulture Population

India’s waning vulture population has set its Zoroastrian community on edge and in response the government has provided 5 million in aid to help built aviaries to help increase the number of vultures in the wild. There are nine specific vulture species that are native to India, Pakistan and Nepal and seven of those are found in the Thar desert.

An ailing vulture population wouldn’t normally pique the interest of most people and it is something that even the most ardent wildlife advocate wouldn’t too zealously pursue but the fact remains that these bald-headed scavengers do perform a very important function, a function so important that some writers have even dubbed the fall in the vulture population a national crisis.

The number of vultures in the wild has dropped dramatically from the early 80’s when the vulture population was estimated to be at about 4 million, a rather healthy total when compared to the 100,000 it stands at today.

Interestingly enough the prime cause for the fall in numbers is not urbanization due to a booming population but rather a drug called diclofenac that is used as a pain killer for cattle and when the vultures feed on the remains of dead cattle the residues of the drug that remain in the carcasses seep into the bodies of the vultures and that in turn kills the vultures. Fortunately, the drug has been banned and that should help somewhat in reviving the vulture population of India.

In 2016 the Union Environment Minister Shri Prakash Javadeka launched Asia’s first Gyps Vulture Reintroduction Program aimed at restoring the vulture population to what it was in the early 80’s i.e. to approximately 4 million.

The decline in the vulture population is especially distressing to India’s Parsi or Zoroastrian community because vultures are part of the Zoroastrian funeral rite and it is obviously something that the community wants to preserve and see continue.

Parsis who are Zoroastrians by faith neither bury nor cremate the remains of their dead but rather leave the body under the scorching heat for the sun to absorb the liquid in the body and for the vultures to feed on the flesh. From all accounts, it is over within a few hours but obviously it is very dependent or reliant on the vulture population.

According to the Zoroastrian faith upon death or once the soul leaves the body, the body becomes impure and evil spirits come to attack the flesh of the dead and these spirits precipitate disease and pestilence.

From a more contemporary or scientific perspective this believe is not wrong because decaying and decomposing flesh does promote sickness, disease and pestilence. By allowing vultures to feed on the flesh, the possibility of the decomposing flesh precipitating any type or sort of disease or illness is reduced and the vultures because of their strong beaks not only eat away at the surface flesh but also gnaw away at the bones, and consume the marrow and whatever remains inside and thereby not only arrest the spread of disease and any other forms or sickness and pestilence that may result from decaying and decomposing flesh but from a religious perspective also allow the soul to continue with the journey thereafter.

It is a common believe that as long as the body remains the soul may be prohibited from continuing with the after-death journey. In some Zoroastrian cultures the remains or what is left, though it is difficult to see vultures leaving anything behind, these scavengers normally do an extremely good job at eating away at carcasses, is thrown into a pit and left to turn to dust.

Similarly, vultures also eat away at carcasses of other animals especially remains that most people would ignore, and that further reduces the risk of plagues and disease outbreaks. All in all, these vultures perform a very important task.

It is fairly easy to see why a drop in the vulture population would be distressing to the Zoroastrians of India and hopefully with renewed attempts at reviving the population we will see a boost in numbers and even if it does not get to the 4 million it was at in the early 80’s, it should hopefully in the not too distant future get to at least half that number.

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