No. This post is not about Wall Street or vulture funds.
It’s been 20 years since I was last in Bombay. Old habits die hard. It’s been 20 years since I was last in Mumbai.
I was having a chicken tandoori lunch with a number of colleagues, all of whom were Hindu – except for one.
He was Parsi.
A Zoroastrian. A member of a group that practiced the original religion of Iran until it was annihilated there by the Islamic invasions. His family had fled Iran centuries ago and settled in India. Most of the Parsis live in and around Mumbai.
We were sitting outside enjoying a pleasant day, a nice lunch and good conversation. I was bringing my co-workers up to date on what was happening at our New York headquarters.
Suddenly the sky went black – and I mean black. It seemed as if a thousand birds suddenly filled the sky, virtually blocking out the sun. Ok. Maybe not a thousand. Just lots of birds. Big birds.
What the f…!
Our Parsi colleague Homi smiled at me.
“The birds are ours!” Seems the Parsi “Tower of Silence” was nearby on Malabar Hill. At the Tower of Silence the Parsi community continues with its 3,000-year-old Zoroastrian tradition of disposing of the dead by exposing the body to scavenger birds.
The prophet Zarathushtra insisted on a reverence for all elements. None of them is to be defiled. A corpse is considered impure not just physically on account of infection and decay, but also because it is swiftly colonized by evil spirits. Therefore, cremation and burial on land or sea are unacceptable.
Keeping aside the macabre imagery, this system of exposure is swift and ecologically sound. It’s also softened by mythology: the soul’s cosmic transition is aided by the vulture’s mystic eye, and the feeding of one’s dead body to the birds is considered the devout Zoroastrian’s final act of charity.
The practice originated in ancient Persia, the homeland which the Parsis fled, circa 900 AD, to protect their ancient faith from an emerging Islam. The practice survived in pockets such as among the Yazid, but Iran’s towers were declared a health hazard and illegal in the 1970s because urbanisation had marched upon these once-desolate ‘sky burial sites’.
The Tower of Silence, called a dakhma, is a circular amphitheater like structure with walls about 18 feet high and only one door. Inside are three concentric circular levels – the outer level for men, the center for women and the inner circle for children. Bodies are left exposed to the vultures who quickly strip the body within an hour leaving only bones which were downed with the rain into a receiving well, it’s floor covered in sand and charcoal. The bones would completely bleach out and rains wash away the remains through the filtering.
But there is trouble.
India once had hundreds of millions of vultures, a vast population that thrived because the nation has one of the largest livestock populations in the world but forbids cattle slaughter. When cows died, they were immediately set upon by flocks of vultures that left behind skin for leather merchants and bones for bone collectors. As recently as the 1980s, even the smallest villages often had thousands of vulture residents.
At the turn of this century the vultures began to die off in dramatic numbers. Some 98% of all of India’s vultures perished within five years. No one knew why. This event caused great stress in the Parsi community. Bodies were not being consumed in the traditional manner. There suddenly weren’t enough vultures.
The Indian government conducted an in-depth investigation of the vulture holocaust. It found Vultures died off in massive numbers due to the use of the veterinary drug Diclofenac in animals, which causes kidney failure in vultures who feed on the animal corpses. It is similar to the medicines found in Advil and Aleve.
The government banned Diclofenac’s use in veterinary medicine although it is still used on humans as a pain killer in hospitals.
The Parsi’s have petitioned the government and the government has agreed to a vulture breeding program to repopulate the species in India with the proviso that no Parsi must use the drug Diclofinac to relieve the pain of a dying relative in hospital.. But it will be a long time if ever before vulture hoards fly over the Tower of Silence again. Two aviaries are being built at the site fifteen years after vultures disappeared from Mumbai’s skies so that the giant scavengers can once again devour human corpses; hopefully Diclofenac free.
Meanwhile the community is in crisis over the issue. Reformers want to embrace cremation but traditionalists found an alternative in powerful solar concentrators which desiccate the corpse admittedly not in the half-hour that a hungry flock of vultures accomplished, but which still keep to Zarathushtra’s injunction not to defile the elements.
Funny how today I remembered the vultures and that lunch and lovable eccentric Homi. I wonder how he would feel about no longer seeing his vultures.
He once said to me “It is the last thing you can do when you die. The supreme act of charity. You feed your body to the birds”. Homi was a decade older than I twenty years ago. He had a heart condition. He may be long gone for all I know.
If he is I hope he went out the way he wanted. Willing his body to the birds.
Update – Following revelations that diclofenac was deadly to the birds, the governments of India, Pakistan and Nepal banned the use of the drug for cattle. Bangladesh followed in 2010, and in May 2012 the four governments reached an “unprecedented political agreement” to prevent unintentional poisoning of vultures from veterinary drugs
To help these large raptors rebound, conservationists have established vulture-safe zones. Within them are “vulture restaurants” that provide the birds with diclofenac-free carcasses – which offer birdwatchers keen to track down vultures a chance to see them. Vulture numbers have leveled off in many areas, and increased elsewhere. In India, all three critically endangered species of vultures appear to have stabilized.
Conservation can work, even in extremely challenging circumstances — in this case an elusive and diffuse threat covering an entire subcontinent — provided there is political will, carefully targeted research and a willingness to work together.