OPINION

An India Without Vultures

August 25, 2007
Harold Bergsma

I lay spread-eagled on a huge rock on a slope high above the Kali Gandaki River of West Nepal; the Annapurna massif towered above me. I had spent the morning climbing from our base camp near the river valley to the snow line, an altitude of about 16,000 feet. The air was thin, but the view was spectacular. High above me I could see a lammergeier, the Bearded Vulture. I lay absolutely still, waiting.

The huge bird with a wingspan of more than nine feet circled, losing altitude. The currents coming up from the valley below the cliff where I lay held up the bird; it did not flap its wings but circled slowly I could see the feathers ruffle at the back edges of its wings. Then what I had hoped, happened.

It set its wings for a glide and came to rest some thirty feet from me. I could hear the sound of air in its feathers as it landed. I lay still. It hopped toward me. When it was about ten feet away, I sat up. It hissed and spread its huge wings, then turned and hopped to the edge of the cliff and lifted off, still looking back at me with its sharp eyes, surrounded by a dark patch that looked like the mask of a bandit. It left behind one feather. I picked it up and quickly dropped it again. It was crawling with feather lice.

The year was 1949. I was the junior member of the first ornithological expedition to West Nepal sponsored by the Museum of Natural History, Chicago, and the National Geographic Society. The Fleming expedition collected bird specimens all the way to the border of Tibet. It was there that I first heard about a Tibetan burial custom... well, not actually burial.

Bodies of dead persons are chopped up and these are fed to the lammergeier vultures. The birds become habituated to feeding at these “sky burial” sites. These birds also feed on corpses of wild animals and other animals that are disposed of after the skin has been removed for leather. They even fly away with large bones and drop them onto rocks to break them to get at the marrow. Some smaller bones are swallowed and digested. See pictures of this bird and other Indian vultures in Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds, Oxford University Press, 13th edition, May 8, 2003)

I read recently in the Parsi Khabar about another place where vultures are used to dispose of human remains. The Mumbai Tower of Silence has been used by Zoroastrians of India, the Parsis, as a place to dispose of their dead. Vultures gather to consume the remains, disposing of it in a matter of an hour. But few vultures are there now!

The sacred religious burial ritual may have existed since the beginning of their religion in the 6th. century B.C. It is in danger of being terminated because Asian vultures, which have throughout the ages of mankind been around abundantly, are now almost extinct. The British Medical Association (Nature and Animal Conservation- Global Issues, July 9, 2005) reported that 97% of the vulture population in India has crashed. What was once one of the most abundant large birds of prey in the world is dying out! Why?

The verdict is in, but there is controversy about it for a number of reasons. There is an anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, similar to ibuprofen, which has been used by cattle farmers as a popular cure-all to treat a variety of diseases. When vultures feed on the carcasses which are traditionally left out for them, the drug in the meat creates kidney failure in vultures if consumed. It appears that the drug is a poison to vultures. Strangely, now dogs and rats have taken over the task of disposing of the remains of dead cattle from which skins have been removed. India has a population of 500 million cattle! There are 140,000 slaughter houses in India. Meat export is becoming big business. (See: Cattle: Locking horns over culture and business: India Together, Fri 24th 2007)

What happens to the remains from slaughter houses? Few people eat dead cows that die of old age or disease. Dogs eat offal but are also susceptible to the drug; however, not many of them have died. Dogs are not up to the job. Nor are rats. This is a huge problem in India!

Vultures, not particularly held in high esteem by people, are looked at as avian outcasts, but they performed a vital function in South East Asia, in Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Tibet and Sri Lanka, to keep the environment clean and fresh. Their extinction would be a massive tragedy, a more important event than the extinction of the Dodo.

Controversy exists because there may be other causes for the extinction. Only a very small percentage of the cattle that are fed to vultures have been treated by diclofenac by farmers who, according to reports, got the drug from veterinarians. One report suggested that if only one in a hundred carcasses was tainted with diclofenac that would be enough to create the problem. I am surprised that so many Indian farmers are so sensitive about the aches and pains, arthritis and headaches of their cattle that they seek out treatment from veterinarians. I wonder.

Lead may be the culprit, as may other human debris that can be picked up by vultures and fed to their young. Animals that have been shot contain lead bullets and if consumed lead to death. Perhaps a strange virus is the culprit. But no, scientists now have come to a tentative firm conclusion, it was not a virus. Diclofenac is the culprit that has killed off the vultures, not vulture-bird flu. Have you ever watched vultures work on a huge pile of garbage? They pick over hundreds of items in the trash heap that humans discard.

In order to get samples of vultures to do tissue analysis scientists had to resort to using those found dead, hanging in branches of trees. Reports stated that because of cultural and religious prohibition against killing animals, vultures, they were not able to make a selection of vultures for tissue samples that were collected from the specimens they desired. I was unable to find out their sampling techniques. Were dying vultures from a wide distribution across the sub-continent utilized? There are 140,000 slaughter houses in India that kill cattle. Why couldn’t a few hundred vultures which were dying be killed for the sake of science? There are other questions yet to be asked, however, the scientific consensus is, that it is a drug similar to ibuprofen has killed millions of vultures.

Captive breeding programs have been established in a few places in India. If these fine animals can be bred in captivity they can be reintroduced into their normal habitats in later years. It was also hoped that caged vultures could be used in the Tower of Silence to dispose of the dead, but that plan had a flaw. Human beings consume lots of diclofenac and their corpses would kill off the captive populations of vultures as well and may have been the cause of many of their deaths up to this time. So what do they feed the other captive vulture populations? How do they insure that the animals used for feed will not contain the drug?

There has been a successful introduction of an almost extinct species through captive breeding programs; the California condor, however, it feeds almost exclusively on dead wild game, and perhaps free ranging cattle and sheep. There is now a flock of about 200 hundred birds and a viable population of the same species in Mexico. It does not appear that the plight of the condor and the Indian vulture are similar in the sense that saving the American condor is an emotional environmental issue to prevent the regional loss of a species, whereas saving the Indian vulture is a massive international social-environmental imperative that impacts on the lives of millions of Indian people.

If scientists are correct about what has killed the vultures, other populations of vultures may be threatened because of their consumption of human bodies. Diclofenac may have devastating implications for Himalayan vultures. The Tibetan “sky burial” custom may mean the doom of the Bearded Vulture and three other species of vultures that fly over that part of Nepal and China. If persons who have taken these pain killers and anti- inflammatory drugs, readily available across the counter, in Tibet and China and are disposed of in “sky burial” ceremonies, extinction may occur for these wonderful animals, which have existed on earth from one evolution, one rebirth to the next for thousands of years.

“Big Pharma”, the huge pharmaceutical companies that manufacture diclofenac, have done a great job of marketing it for human consumption and veterinarian use as well; their influence is all over Asia. It is a multimillion dollar business. The use of the drug is widespread to scattered populations across Asia.

An ecological disaster of huge proportions looms. Governments are slow and take a lethargic “...approach to pushing forward a promised ban on the drug, diclofenac, a cheap painkiller for cattle that is mortally poisonous to vultures.” This report reminded us of the Timarpur rubbish dump in north Delhi where the sky was once black with vultures, looking for cattle carcasses. Today the dumps are patrolled by dogs and rats. Rotting bodies of cattle remain for days which allows for the build up of other lethal pathogens, flies and other diseases.

Governments must act now! Efforts must be made through all the media to inform the general population of what has happened, and how it can be stopped. Additional scientific studies, not blocked by socio-religious taboos should be performed. Our fixes for headaches may have become one of the world’s biggest headaches. I cannot imagine an India without vultures.

Harold Bergsma has published widely in professional journals, and novels. In 2007, One Way To Pakistan was published and in April of 2007 was awarded the Indie Excellence Award for Multicultural Fiction.
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#1
Deepti Lamba
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August 25, 2007
02:17 AM

Harold, thank you for this wonderful article. I did wonder a few months back why there were only Kites circling around garbage dumps and no vultures.

#2
temporal
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August 25, 2007
02:22 AM

harold:

thanks for bringing this awareness raising article here

based on what happens in other environmental concerns it can be safely adduced that humans in their utter selfishess are advertently and inadvertently causing inhuman environmental repercussions

have three queries for you:

1: what could have caused the lice infestation on the single feather you saw in 1949 in that remote region?

2: am a bit unsure of the 'scientific' conclusions you quoted. who are they? how many birds, from what regions, did they open up? the duration of that study?

3: there must be a way to treat/neutralise the carcasses/corpses or rid them of this drug making them safe for the vultures?

#3
harold bergsma
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August 25, 2007
01:26 PM

Dear temporal,#2.Lice and other parasites on raptors and vultures is common. Even among chickens and pigeons it is common to find parasites. One Bearded Vulture is a microcosm in itself, as it host thousands of creatures that live off of it. Scientists who visit the nests of vultures to study eggs and chicks, complain of the parasites that climb up their shoes, pants and even get on their hands. There must be some reason for this phenomenon. However, I have prepared many dozens of bird skins for scientific reasons and have been amazed at how frequently parasites exist. I wish to remind you that humans also carry a zoo of creatures with and on them. Our mattresses are filled with microscopic creatures that feed from our skin cells.

"Scientific conclusions" I have read dozens of research articles. A few outlined how they obtained vulture specimens. Because of hot weather, vulture bodies decay and are also the object of other animals which eat them. One study said that they paid boys to climb trees to retrieve dead vultures that had been caught in the branches to obtain specimens. With my limited perusal of the 'literature' about vultures, I did not come across studies which showed how samples of vulture tissues were taken over a wide area of India and the sub-continent, nor how they did their sampling. One study that that is an excellen one is "Manifesto on Diclofenac and Vulture Conservation which was agreed upon and endorsed by Birdlife International and a number of other organizations. (www.birdlife.org/action/science/species/asia_vulture crisis/vulture_manifesto.html)

I do not think that carcasses can be treated. Even the treatment could prove to be problematic. What is being done in some places is to create huge ovens that burn up the remains, but that takes fuel, is expensive and requires a mentality that is sensitive to environmental needs as opposed to keeping money in the pocket. Vultures were magnificent in how they cleaned up our messes. Sometimes the ugliest and most hated creatures are 'heavenly'.

#4
temporal
URL
August 25, 2007
03:20 PM

harold:

thank you very much for the detailed and informative reply:)

#5
Ravi Kulkarni
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August 27, 2007
07:41 AM

Dear Harold,

It is an eye-opening article. Thanks for your hard work.

You never mentioned mortality of the wingless vultures that circle around the nearby New Delhi? They seem to function just fine diclofenac, antibiotics and other deadly concotions not-withstanding. We must encourage these drug manufacturers to produce even deadlier brews.

Regards,

Ravi Kulkarni

#6
Shyam
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August 27, 2007
08:40 AM

Silly of me, I almost expected an India without the political vultures :) And we can definitely do well without them.
Was really nice to read something different though. Thanks!

#7
Michael Hansen
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August 27, 2007
01:43 PM

Interesting article that shows how fragile and complicated the food chain is. Our introduction of even the most innocuous substance into the diet of one animal has long reaching and unforeseen repercussions.

#8
Aaman
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August 30, 2007
08:03 AM

You might find this interesting: Vulture Count Falls by 40% in Gujarat It explicitly states:

Use of banned drug diclofenac has reduced the population to 1,500 from 2,646 last year

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