It’s the bird most commonly associated with death. Once a common sight in South Asia, the vulture, or nature’s scavenger, is one of the 78 species in India that is dying out. Faced with a mysterious virus and pesticide poisoning, the population of vultures today is said to be just 5 per cent of what it was (about 20 years ago) in the 1980s. A couple of years ago, the vultures of Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur numbered 2000. Now there are just four.
Help is at hand in one corner of Pinjore, near Chandigarh. In the 1800 acre reserve forest that forms the official hunting grounds of the former Maharaja of Patiala, scientists will soon set up an international captive breeding centre for vultures. The centre will aim to rear healthy, virus-free birds and then release them into the wild.
But why are these clumsy-looking birds so important? Vultures are scavengers. That is, they eat the meat of dead animals. They are central to the cycle of life and death. By consuming the dead, they make way for the living. Which is probably why in every culture across the world, vultures are respected.
For once, the near-extinction of a species has more people worried than just zoologists and bird-watchers. Vultures are central to the Parsi faith. Explains Khojeste P. Mistree of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, “For us, conservation of vultures is closely linked to religion. We leave our dead bodies exposed to the sun so as to be devoured by the birds, and the vulture is the most important of these birds of prey.”
Hindu villagers too are complaining. They rely on vultures to pick clean the carcasses of sacred cows that are left uneaten. According to the Mumbai Natural History Society, villagers have started fighting over the disposal of rotting animals, while dog and crow populations have shot up. “We first noticed something was wrong when the villagers started complaining that the vultures were no longer eating their dead buffaloes,” said Dr Asad Rahmani, the society’s director.
What’s killing these birds? Experts have found traces of pesticides in the brain tissue of vultures and say that this may be the cause of their death. Vultures the meat of dead animals that were infected with pesticides from the grain that makes up the cattle-feed.
But there’s a mysterious virus that’s attacking the vultures too. “All our reports and data show the vultures are dying of some viral disease,” says Asad Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society. This unidentified virus causes what is known as “drooping neck syndrome,” which is accompanied by stomach cramps, dehydration and enteritis. The birds normally hang their necks during the hottest part of the day. But once infected they droop all the time. The birds typically die six months after contracting the disease.
Scientists believe the virus has already crossed over to Nepal and Pakistan and fear that the disease will soon spread to West Asia. “This is a serious problem,” said Dr Debbie Pain, head of international research at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. “The disease is spreading west very rapidly.” Already, vultures are gone from the famed Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal, close to the Indian border, and also from areas in Pakistan adjoining Rajasthan in India.
Which is what makes the centre at Pinjore so important, especially if scientists do manage to nurture virus-free birds. But we still need to take a hard look at the pesticides poisoning the food chain. After all, we’re one of the ‘animals’ consuming these pesticides in our food!