Vultures - The Urgent Need to Keep the Eaters of the Dead Alive

Text by Abhishek Srivastava

Can India bring back its prime scavengers before it negatively impact the entire ecosystem?

A Himalayan Griffon

Photo: Udayan Borthakur

This giant bird could be seen close to flesh of a dead carcasses near roadside, slaughter houses. They soared over distant places in search of road kill, dead cows, goats and wild animals. Their magnificent beak seen red-blooded buried in rotten flesh, join as a group for flesh food and finishing up an entire carcass in just few hours. It is something that, none of us wanted to see! But did we ever notice their significant role in cleaning the environment by feeding on dead decaying animals thereby preventing the danger of epidemics.

Vulture are very common in India till the 1980’s and country is home to nine species of the vulture species (out of total 23 species in the world). Now most of them face the danger of extinction. The crash in vulture population came into limelight in mid- 90’s. Over a period of time, their sharp population decline is questioning their future existence. According to IUCN status, out of nine species, four are Critically Endangered (CE), three Near Threatened (NT), one Endangered (EN) and one Least Concerned (LC). Diminishing India’s Vulture will possess a greater challenge.

Vultures also find a place in some of India’s religious practices. The Parsi community have traditionally been dependent on vultures for disposal of dead bodies. They believe that fire, earth and water are sacred and, as such, must not be contaminated with human corpses, by either burial or cremation. The Parsees, therefore, ritualized the practice of putting out the dead for scavengers by building 'towers of silence' to limit access to corpses exclusively to airborne scavengers. Therefore, for several centuries the vultures have been providing a crucial ecosystem service for the Parsi community.

Today the fast disappearing population of vultures is a serious problem in India as well as several other range countries. Since the 1990’s, the populations of several species of vultures have crashed. The trends shown decline in species population of White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis), Slender-billed Vulture (Cyps tenuirostris) Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus), Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus