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Decline of Indian vultures forced the Parsis to change their traditions and accept cremations as an alternative to sky burial

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Most people with an interest in conservation have heard by now about the ordeal vultures are going through worldwide. The decrease in their populations has been dramatically visible in India, where almost all vulture species suffered big losses as a consequence of the administration of the anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac to treat cattle, which is fatal for these birds. As a result, 99.7% of the population of White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis) has disappeared in less than 10 years, making it the fastest collapse in any avian population ever recorded in history. Overall, it’s estimated that over 95-99% of Indian vultures have disappeared in the last 2 decades.

The joint efforts of the scientific community, NGOs and government have managed to stop this decline, and the actions undertaken to revert the crisis have now started to show some encouraging results. Even so, some experts believe vulture populations might never fully recover from this catastrophe.

The disappearance of a species from an ecosystem creates an “ecological vacuum”, an unstable state in which other species will step in to take over the extinct species’ role in the environment and proliferate until the system is balanced again. This situation alters the whole ecosystem at every level, and the changes are even more extreme following the loss of a key species such as vultures. Unfortunately, it possible that by the time vulture populations are on the road to recovery, the ecosystem would have undergone an ecological re-arrangement and no longer be suitable to sustain the same numbers as it did before.

In India, the outcome of the “vulture crisis” is clearly visible: The decrease in vulture populations caused an explosion in the numbers of small scavengers such as rats and feral dogs, which are not as efficient at disposing of carcasses as vultures, and unlike these birds can carry diseases from corpses such as rabies or anthrax, making them an important vector for the outbreak of infections in humans. As of 2015, the cost of the decrease in Indian vulture populations has been estimated at around 25 billion USD.

Another consequence of this vulture decline impacted one of the world´s oldest cultures: One of the ancient Zoroastrian culture’s best known customs is their traditional “sky burial”, where the bodies of deceased Parsis are brought to the tower of death, where vultures consume the dead and leave the bones untouched, which are then retrieved and buried. After the disappearance of vultures from the Indian skies, bodies were not able to be disposed of this way. This has forced the Parsi community to start considering alternatives to the sky burial; a century-old and sustainable tradition that might now be lost. More information here:  

Despite all the information out there, sadly most people have never heard how Diclofenac affects these birds, or even know that vultures are on the brink of extinction all across their distribution range. Moreover, vultures still have one of the worst – yet undeserved – reputations in the animal kingdom. Ugly, disgusting, malevolent, foul…these are but a few of the adjectives most commonly used to describe them. One of the main goals of organizations such as the VCF is to help turn this negative attitude towards these incredible birds, and raise awareness on their invaluable role as “nature’s waste managers”.

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