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Vultures: the unsung heroes of death

Chyi Chung considers the position of vultures within the Indian food chain

The doongerwadi seems an inconspicuous stone tower raised on a plinth. But from their flight in the sky, its roofless interior becomes exposed. The bodies of men, women and children are laid out in three carved, concentric circles surrounding a pit. They swoop down and devour the corpses in a matter of hours. They are efficient: the bodies are picked clean to the bone for depositing in the pit, before they take flight once more. They are the unsung heroes of death.

The Gyps vulture of the Indian subcontinent have always played a role in Dokhmenashini (‘sky burial’), a ritual of Parsis, followers of the ancient monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism. They believe the body becomes impure once dead. Hence, in lieu of burial and cremation, which taint the four elements of earth, fire, water and wind, they present their dead on exposed platforms to scavenging vultures. This age-old symbiosis between man and bird that has prevailed through three millennia is, however, under threat.

In the Indian subcontinent, the practices of a Hindu majority have long sustained its Gyps vulture population. Cattle are ubiquitously kept for dairy and labour. When they die, their carcasses are destined for the vultures. The abundance of livestock has meant that their carcasses are the vultures’ primary food source. In the 1990s, diclofenac was introduced as a cheap analgesic and anti-inflammatory drug in bovine farming. The coincided with plummeting numbers of vultures. Although potent enough to decimate colonies of cholera and anthrax bacteria, the stomach acid of vultures cannot break down the toxicity of diclofenac. Bioaccumulation leads to kidney failure and, ultimately, death. The drug was banned for veterinary use in 2006, although by then the Gyps vulture population had been reduced by a staggering 99.9%. as of today, the 3 main Gyps species (G. bengalensis, G. indicus and G. tenuirostris) of the subcontinent remain critically endangered.

The dwindling vulture population has also impacted the food web. It is becoming more likely that carcasses of livestock fall into the paws of feral dogs that lack the sanitation and efficiency of vultures, often leaving behind half-eaten carcasses for rats. The World Health Organisation reports that India makes up 36% of the world’s rabies death toll. It is caused by a virus transmitted through saliva from an infected dog’s bite. This has led to the implementation of more vigorous vaccination schemes especially in rural areas. Many have also warned of a potential outbreak of the bubonic plague or other rodent-transmitted diseases.

Vultures rarely visit anymore. In 2006, Dhan Baria released horrific images of bloody corpses rotting atop the Mumbai doongerwadi, questioning the hu8manioty of what has been deemed as a humane practice in today’s world. Parsis have since resorted to using mirrors, which induce a solar oven effect to hasten the process of decomposition. This, however, becomes ineffective during monsoon season. Some are opting instead for conventional methods of burial and cremation. The debacle has raised a debate on the need to attune tradition to modernity within the community. A more sustainable outlook lies in the building of aviaries. Vulture breeding is slow: five to seven years is needed for sexual maturity, and only one egg is laid every breeding season. Hence, it would take decades of perseverance and investment to overcome the onslaught rendered.

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