Where: Surat, Gujarat, India
November 4, 2000: When a member of the Parsi community dies, according to their religion, the body is not buried or consigned to flames. It is placed in the “Tower of Silence” for the scavenger birds or vultures to feed on them so that even in death the body is of use.
In Surat, Gujarat, till a few years ago, the body would be eaten up in no time in the Tower of Silence or the Dhokma as it is locally called. About 100 to 150 vultures would descend on the body minutes after it was placed on the Dhokhma and consume it in a few minutes.
The Scavengers are Dying
No more. For some time now the bodies have kept lying in the Dhokhma-s – well-like structures with planks across – for months on end, reports The Hindustan Times. And they keep rotting.
“Bodies lie there for many months, rotting and stinking for several months at times”, admits the president of the body that manages the city’s Dhokhma.
There’s a reason behind the absence of vultures. The country’s vultures too, are going the way of many other hapless creatures of the wilds – they are dying out.
Vulture deaths: consequence of human actions
An immediate cause of death is due to the vultures feeding on dead cattle heavily medicated with toxic drugs, or on the carcasses of farm and domestic animals exposed to insecticides.
It’s not just Surat either. Environmentalists have observed a sharp decline in the number of vultures throughout the regions where Indian vultures are found, like the state of Gujarat. Experts have found traces of pesticides in the brain tissue of vultures and say that this may be the cause of their death.
Similarly in the Delhi, Agra and Bharatpur belt, there were 20,000 vultures in the 1980s. Now their number is down to 150, says a representative of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWFN ), Delhi, according to a report by environmental journalist, Usha Rai, in the The Hindu newspaper.
In the 1990s, carcass dumps around Delhi airport were moved out and slaughter-houses were sealed to scavengers with wire fencing. It forced the birds to move out to other areas in search of food, many of them to the areas around the Corbett National Park in Uttar Pradesh and other protected areas. It proved to be a disaster.
Farmers of the region around the Corbett National Park routinely poison cattle carcasses meant for tigers and leopards to avenge the killings of their cattle. In the Annamalai area of South India too, a scientist, Kannan, has recorded that vultures are getting wiped out because of animal baits.
Poisoning of wildlife and vultures continues meanwhile. The food chain holds the key. Vultures eat animal carcasses infected with pesticides from the grain that forms the cattle-feed.
Other birds of prey, like fishing eagles, also become victims. As pesticides enter into the plankton in water that is eaten by the fish, the poison reaches the eagle when it eats the fish.
The poison climbs steadily, a little higher at each level until it reaches the vultures and kills them, says a report in ‘Gobar Times’, a children’s monthly newspaper brought out by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
Birds – the pesticide story
Chemicals and Aldrin, DDT, dieldrin, chlordane – names of deadly pesticides – have over the years led to the decline of the Californian condor, the American bald eagle, the grey partridge and the song thrush in England, and the South African blue crane. Realising how deadly they are, the U.S. and several European countries have banned the use of these pesticides, but countries like India still haven’t.
When pesticides like these are eaten by birds (if they don’t die first) they lay deformed eggs with thin egg shells, and many of the young birds die really soon. Sometimes, the birds are born with some defect or the other. (These pesticides don’t spare humans either. Scientists in Canada, Sweden and the U.S. have found a very strong link between the use of pesticides and a certain type of cancer called Non Hodgkin’s Lymphomas.)
It’s not vultures alone. The death of 40 peacocks, the national bird, in Morena district, Madhya Pradesh, and a steady decline in all bird species, especially those that feed on insects, like drongos, thrushes, chats and warblers, have alerted environmental groups to the danger of pesticides.
Then there is the damage that unrestricted grazing and human pressure on bird habitats. Many birds need trees to rest and when parks and sanctuaries shrink, the trees disappear.
Faulty forest practices like monoculture plantations and the introduction of exotics breeds, also damage bio-diversity. As a result of mechanised farming, hedges, the natural sanctuaries for several birds, are fast disappearing too.
Add to this the mushrooming of concrete buildings, the increasing pollution… no wonder the birds are dying.
Can we avert disaster?
Environmentalists are now searching for solutions to prevent the deaths of the birds. The creation of special food reserves for birds like the vultures, with a view to increase their population, is one way. They can be relocated once their numbers increase.
Having woken up to the seriousness of the problem, the environment ministry plans to discuss the poisoning of wildlife at a meeting.
Meanwhile, you and I could do our bit to prevent birds from dying. We could plant large trees like the tamarind, banyan and the pilkan for the large birds to nest in. The cutting-down of these trees is yet another factor in the disappearance of the birds. Grow climbers, bushes and other wild plants in our gardens.
If nothing moves us, let’s think of saving the scavenger bird and the others in sheer self interest or unlike the Parsis of Surat, we shall find the consequences of our ill-actions rebounding on us in strange and mysterious ways.