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India Baffled By Mysterious Vulture Die-Off

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 680 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... INDIA BAFFLED BY MYSTERIOUS VULTURE DIE-OFF By John
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 29, 2002
      NHNE News List
      Current Members: 680
      Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message.


      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
      explain why.

      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
      their dead.

      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
      as people.

      "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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