Pinjore, May 18 (Reuters): A decade ago, vultures were almost as common as sparrows in India.
Their screeching, as they ripped into animal carcasses, could be heard in cities across the country.
But a mystery virus has changed that and, one expert says, threatens to push the gawky black birds to the brink of extinction.
In 10 years, India has lost more than 95 per cent of its vulture population. “Their decline has been truly dramatic. At one time, there were tens of thousands of vultures in India,” Vibhu Prakash, a specialist in birds of prey at the Bombay Natural History Society, said.
“Today, they are a threatened species. They are down to just a few thousands, which is very unusual because vultures are very hardy creatures who can live on petrified carcasses.”
Vultures, while they may be really low in the pecking order as far as beauty is concerned, are considered sacred by many in the country.
The dramatic drop in the population has created a crisis for the Parsi community, which leaves its dead in stone towers to be eaten by vultures because its religion forbids burial and cremation.
In Mumbai, home to one of the country’s largest Parsi population, the community has installed solar panels at the Towers of Silence to use the sun’s rays to dispose of their dead.
“They are also thinking of enclosing the Towers of Silence with captive vultures,” says Prakash.
Vultures are also considered sacred in Hindu mythology because, according to legend, the bird died while trying to rescue Sita.
Religious considerations aside, ornithologists and environmentalists say the dramatic drop in their numbers has enormous implications for the ecosystem across the globe.
Vultures play a key role in keeping cities clean because they eat animal carcasses in a country with few resources to dispose of corpses. Without them, the bodies could pile up, leading to anthrax and other diseases, some experts say.
“Vultures perform a vital function as scavengers,” says R.D. Jakati, chief wildlife warden in Haryana, which has seen a sudden fall in its vulture population.
“The drop in the number of vultures has led to an increase in the stray dog population which could lead to a rise in the incidence of rabies.”
The crisis began about 15 years ago when Prakash noticed a group of vultures on a tree in a bird sanctuary in northern India with their heads limp and their beaks down by their bellies.
A few days later, the birds had died. Tests showed the birds showed signs of visceral gout caused by degeneration of the kidneys. “That’s when we began investigating the phenomenon and discovered the vultures were not victims of pesticide poisoning or a loss of habitat,” Prakash says.
“A series of tests showed the birds were suffering from a virus but it’s a completely new strain which we can’t identify.”
Experts say they fear the mystery virus — which has struck the Gyps species of vultures — could spread to other parts of the world such as Central Asia and Africa because of the migratory patterns of the birds.
“Birds are the first ones to get infected and what happens to them is an indicator of what’s to come,” says Prakash, pointing to a suspected jump from the animal kingdom that seems to have brought the latest virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, into the human population.
Alarmed at the decline in the vulture population, the Indian government has teamed up with Britain to set up a vulture care centre in Pinjore in Haryana.
Tucked away in a forest in Pinjore, the tiny centre cares for sick vultures and monitors their condition through regular blood and weight checks to try and identify the mystery virus.
Four birds are in quarantine and six recovering vultures have been housed in a row of enormous cages at the centre funded by the Darwin Initiative, a British government grant scheme.