India Baffled By Mysterious Vulture Die-Off
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INDIA BAFFLED BY MYSTERIOUS VULTURE DIE-OFF
By John Nielsen's
June 26, 2002
India has lost one of its most important animals, and no one knows why.
Since the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of healthy-looking vultures
have dropped dead there. Two species of vulture that were once the country's
most visible birds have all but vanished, and pathologists are at a loss to
The mysterious die-off, still spreading, has created serious public health
problems and forced at least one religious crisis in India. NPR's John
Nielsen reports for All Things Considered.
In India, the vulture is a sacred beast. In the Hindu mythology, it dies to
save the life of a goddess. In Parsi culture, it eats the dead. A
2,000-year-old tradition calls for the community to lay out its dead at the
top of the so-called Towers of Silence. Vultures used to descend upon the
bodies, leaving behind just bones within hours. Now, few vultures flock to
the towers and the Parsi have been forced to look for new ways to dispose of
Through the 1980s, the birds were everywhere. it wasn't unusual to see
hundreds of vultures circling a dump or sitting in a single tree. Planes ran
into them constantly over big cities.
Then the vultures started dropping dead. Local people said some of them
seemed to die in mid-flight and tumble straight to the ground.
Martin Gilbert of the Peregrine Fund says he's never seen a species -- in
this case two -- disappear so quickly. By the late 1990s, 90 percent of the
white-back and long-billed vultures in India were gone, and an international
ecological crisis was at hand. The Peregrine Fund's Rick Watson says
vultures in Nepal and eastern Pakistan were also dying by then.
A search for the cause is currently underway. Pesticides aren't likely,
since only the vultures are dying. Lethal toxins haven't yet been found in
carcasses. "The only plausible cause is a disease factor," says Robert
Risebrough, a toxicologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It
could be a virus that is resident in some other species, where it is
probably harmless, that somehow jumped into the vultures."
It's now possible to go for days in India without seeing a vulture. Rat
populations have exploded in their absence, and huge packs of feral dogs
have taken over the dumps. The new scavengers are much more dangerous than
the vultures were, and they're far less efficient scavengers. Risebrough
says that is crucial in a country where sacred cows are almost as numerous
"When [the cows] die, the vultures consume them. With no vultures, there's
been a major problem in the disposal of carcasses to the point that in some
areas, there's a major health hazard."
India doesn't have the money or equipment to root out the cause of the
catastrophic die-off, and scientists say it's hard to make Americans care
about the problem. But they should, says Rick Watson. The vulture was a
common, widespread, far-ranging species that was thought to be invulnerable
to human activity. In fact, it benefited from human society. And suddenly,
unexpectedly, the bird has been almost wiped out. That, says Watson, could
happen here, to any species.
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