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Threat to Parsi rite as vultures die

By Luke Harding in New Delhi
The Observer
October 1, 2000

From the outside, the Tower of Silence at the top of Bombay's prestigious Malabar Hill appears unremarkable. The only hint of what goes on inside are the vultures that perch on top of the whitewashed outer walls. Inside the secret complex, surrounding a Roman-style amphitheatre, banyan and casarina trees flourish in the tropical sun. And there are, of course, the dead - two or three corpses most days, exposed to the elements and left for vultures to pick clean.

But this ancient, ecologically impeccable method of disposing of the dead, practised by India's Parsi community for hundreds of years, is under threat. The problem is not with the method but the vultures. Over the last three or four years India's vulture population has suffered a dramatic and mysterious decline. They are, literally, falling off their perches. In some areas the vulture has vanished, with extinction possibly only five years away.

For the Parsis, the vulture shortage poses an immediate difficulty: what to do with the dead? The community, which fled Persia 1,200 years ago to escape Arab persecution, believes earth and fire to be sacred. Cremation or burial is regarded as an offence to the elements. And their ritual, first noted by the Greek historian Herodotus 2,500 years ago, when he spotted dead left on mountaintops, has deep emotional significance.

Since being invited to Bombay by the British in the seventeenth century, Parsis have become India's most affluent and distinguished group. There were never very many - 76,000 on current estimates, with 55,000 in Bombay. Many of India's most prosperous industrialists, including the Tata family, are Parsi; they have built schools and colleges, and endowed charitable foundations. But these days many of the young have left for North America, with those who remain increasingly aged and infirm.

Khojeste P. Mistree, of the Parsis' ruling body, the Bombay Parsi Panchayat (Council), said: 'We do still have vultures flying into the Tower of Silence. But it would be wrong of me to tell you there is no problem.' He said that when the system worked well there were between 60 and 100 birds at the Tower. Now there are fewer, but there are still 100 corpses a month. 'If we can come up with a captive breeding programme, we will be able to solve the problem on a long-term basis.'

Conservationists and scientists from all over the world, including the RSPB, gathered in Delhi last month to debate how the vulture can be saved. Classified as 'critically endangered', the most likely explanation for its decline is a virus, the conference heard. Across India the vultures are showing the same symptoms: a drooping neck and lethargy. Weak birds eventually fall out of the trees and die. Numbers have fallen by 90 per cent. Two species have been devastated - the white-backed and long-billed vulture.

Their virtual disappearance is causing difficulties for Hindu villagers who rely on vultures to pick clean the carcasses of sacred cows. Carcasses are lying uneaten. According to the Bombay 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 buffalos,' said Dr Asad Rahmani, the society's director.

With the disease already in Pakistan and Nepal, and every prospect of it spreading to Africa via the Middle East, scientists are trying to carry out further lab tests on dead and ailing vultures. But officials are demanding that they are notified in advance before any dead vultures are taken away. 'The authorities need to treat this with the urgency and seriousness it deserves. You need to work with the international community,' said Andrew Cunningham of the Zoological Society of London, who is researching the virus.

Some experts suggest the vultures started declining in the Seventies, when high-rise blocks sprung up around the 50-acre complex and pollution grew. Only Parsis - members of the Zoroastrian faith, the world's oldest monotheistic religion - are allowed inside.

The Parsis, like the vultures, have been experiencing a steady demographic falling away, attributed to emigration and the reluctance of highly educated Parsis to marry. Most elders refuse to acknowledge the decline. 'We are not an extinct species. Nobody will have to keep a breeding programme for the Parsis,' Mistree said.


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