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India: Endangered vulture population increases for first time in 20 years

Nearly driven to extinction by a drug used for sick cattle, India's endangered vulture population may finally be making a comeback.
Vulture india 2012 11 12Enlarge
Founder of the Asha Foundation animal shelter and hospital Harmesh Bhatt plays with Maya, an Indian vulture, at Hathijan village, some 20 kms from Ahmedabad, on January 16, 2010. (SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)

India's endangered vulture population has increased for the first time in 20 years, following the death of 99 percent of the scavengers over the years. The decline had prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to put India's vultures on its list of critically endangered species.

A research paper by scientists from the Bombay Natural History Society (BHNS) shows that the number of vultures, once found across the country, increased marginally between 2011 and 2012, the Times of India reports.

Vital to the ecosystem and beloved by India's small community of Parsis -- who rely on the carrion eaters to dispose of their dead -- India's vulture population was nearly wiped out before researchers discovered what was killing them: a drug called diclofenac that farmers use widely to treat cattle for various ailments. A palliative for cattle (and humans), diclofenac causes kidney failure in vultures when they eat the carcasses of cows that have been treated with the drug, scientists eventually discovered.

According to the TOI, a ban on the use of diclofenac across South Asia in 2006 led to a drop-off, between 2007 and 2011, in the numbers of birds being killed. Ornithologists said the vulture population had stabilized by 2011, when the numbers remained roughly the same as the previous year.

"Between 2011 and 2012, there has been a slight increase in the population," the paper quoted Vibhu Prakash, deputy director of Bombay Natural History Society and lead researcher of a recent study on the subject, as saying.

Prakash said population estimates are difficult, but the numbers are slightly higher than in 2011, when there were only 1,000 slender-billed vultures (Gyps tenuirostris), 11,000 white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) and 44,000 Long-billed vultures (Gyps indicus) remaining in the country, according to the paper.

The three most common species of vultures in the country are the long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus), also known as the Indian vulture, the white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) and the slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris).

As I reported for the Toronto Globe & Mail some years ago, the shrinking vulture population created a crisis for India's small population of Parsis.

The Parsis -- so called because their ancestors immigrated from Fars, or Persepolis, in Iran -- are Zoroastrians, who believe that earth, water, air and fire are sacred elements. For that reason, their religion forbids them from burying or cremating their dead.

Instead, in a ceremony that no outsider is allowed to witness, pallbearers followed by a procession of mourners in flowing white robes carry the body to one of five tremendous stone structures, evocatively named the Towers of Silence, where the corpse is laid out on a marble slab to be dried up by the sun and devoured by carrion birds.

Without the aid of the vultures, the sun alone can take months to reduce the bodies laid out in the Towers of Silence to desiccated skeletons, a worrying problem as the mushrooming city encroaches on the funeral grounds. Already, the Punchayet has been compelled to stop using one of the towers, located in proximity to the high-rise Paradise Apartments, when residents complained about the sight and smell of the decaying corpses.

More crucially, many Parsis themselves have begun to doubt whether months of putrefaction amount to a death with dignity.

At the time of my Globe & Mail piece in 2006, some conservative Parsis planned to build a giant aviary and breed a captive population of vultures to serve the towers. But reservations about the cost of the project -- which would have run to several million dollars -- as well as doubts about whether it would work, had put the plan on hold.

Instead, the Punchayet adopted a pragmatic solution developed by Homi Dhalla, president of the World Zarathushti Cultural Foundation, a group that sponsors various efforts to preserve Parsi traditions.

Dr. Dhalla, 60, developed a plan to focus powerful solar concentrators at the working area of three of the five towers, amplifying the heat of the sun and thus speeding the desiccation of the bodies. With these devices, the sun can reduce a corpse to a dry husk within three to five days.

Because they harness the power of the sun, Dr. Dhalla believes the solar concentrators, though an innovation, suit the tenets of the Zoroastrian religion. "It was quite difficult for me to find a solution within our theological limitations," he told me at the time.

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