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The fate of India's vultures

Malcolm Tait

1st October, 2004

India’s vulture population is facing catastrophic collapse and with it the sacrosanct corporeal passing of the Parsi dead

The fate of the vultures of India has been well documented this year, and a terrible fate it’s been too. Three species have been suffering a rapid decline in the last decade, and back in January, the blame for that decline was finally finger-pointed. Diclofenac, a drug used to treat domestic cattle, has found its way into the internal systems of the carrion-eating birds, causing renal failure and death.

The white-backed vulture, in particular, has suffered heavily, declining by perhaps as much as 99.7 per cent in the last 10 years. It’s a catastrophic collapse. Captive breeding programmes are already under way to try to save the three species (which also include the long-billed and slender-billed vultures), while steps are being taken to ban the drug in its veterinarian form.

This might be in time to save the birds, (although whether they will ever regain their earlier populations is another matter), but there’s another race that’s been affected by this saga, and it’s one that might not recover. The Parsi people were already in decline. Having fled Persia during the Islamic incursions and made their home in India, they were accepted on the basis that they did not marry outside their Zoroastrian religion and abstain from missionary activities. Many still believe in that discipline, and those that don’t tend to leave to make their lives in other lands.

Today, there are only about 50,000 Parsis left in India. And now, the crash of the vulture population has added to their problems. According to their religion, the elements of earth and fire should never be contaminated by the impurities of human flesh, and as a result, burial and cremation are unacceptable. The Parsis, therefore, ‘bury’ their dead in the sky. In practice, this means leaving the body on a high building, a Tower of Silence, to be devoured by vultures.

Now that the vultures have gone, the Parsis are faced with a vile choice: let the bodies pile up, or resort to a belief-defiling method of disposing of them. With, on average, three Parsis dying each day in Mumbai, the situation is becoming critical. Aviaries have been set up to keep a local concentration of vultures, and in Mumbai, the Parsi council has installed huge solar reflectors to hasten decomposition. One engineer has even installed an ozone-generating machine to help combat the stench.

There is something appallingly sad about the fate of the Parsi dead, and not just because we are watching a religious tradition falter, but because the tradition is founded on ecological awareness. The impurification of the earth, fire and water that the Parsis have long tried to avoid is now part of the everyday lives of the rest of the world. There is barely a patch of land, a pigeon’s crop, a falling leaf or a child’s hair that is not touched somehow, some way, by the cocktail of chemicals, PCBs and drugs that fill our lives. And now, thanks to chemicals, the natural world is no longer even able to sustain one of the last remaining attempts at a purified existence, the corporeal passing of the Parsi dead.

In 1897, Mark Twain visited Bombay, as Mumbai was then known, and attended a Parsi funeral. His description symbolises the extent of why our destruction of a simple ritual is such a desperate loss: ‘it disseminates no corruption, no impurities of any sort, no disease-germs; that no wrap, no garment which has touched the dead is allowed to touch the living afterward; that from the Towers of Silence nothing proceeds which can carry harm to the outside world.’ If only the outside world could say the same.

Malcom Tait’s new book The Wildlife Companion is published by Robson Books

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2004


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