They say that India is a country of paradoxes, and I would have to agree. In no other place have I seen so much beauty and filth, joy and sorrow, opulence and decay, chaos and grace exist simultaneously in the cacophony of old and new that is modern India. The topic of this post joins the list of India’s baffling paradoxes and is one of the most bizarre and tragic things I have come across regarding cattle in India’s modern culture. The pharmaceutical drug diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory medication, has been responsible for driving India’s vulture population to the brink of extinction. Diclofenac has been used to ease the pain of arthritis in livestock and humans but is also highly lethal to vultures that eat the carrion of dead livestock. Studies have shown that a dead cow needs to be fed only 10% of the recommended dose for the toxins present in its carcass to be fatal to vultures.
To understand how serious this problem is consider these statistics from the website British Birds. “A study published in 2007 showed that the population of White-backed Vultures in India had dropped by an average of more than 40% every year between 2000 and 2007. Once one of the commonest species in the world, the population has crashed by 99.9% since, from tens of millions to around only 11,000 individuals. Populations of Long-billed G. indicus and Slender-billed Vultures G. tenuirostris have fallen by 97%. Long-billed Vultures are now thought to number about 45,000 and Slender-billed Vultures just 1,000. The IUCN classifies all three species as Critically Endangered.” The loss of vultures became apparent in the late nineties when villagers began to notice that flocks of vultures no longer dropped from the skies to clean the carcasses of their deceased livestock.
Parsi, a religious group in India also known as Zoroastrians, noticed the birds missing from their burial piers. Parsis do not bury their dead, but leave the bodies on stone piers where birds pick the bones clean. The elements earth, water, air, and fire are considered sacred to Zoroastrians. For that reason their religion forbids them from burying or cremating their dead. They also believe that these “sky burials” help liberate the souls of the deceased. In Mumbai, where the largest number of Parsis live, there have not been enough birds visiting the Tower of Silence to pick the bodies clean for several years. Before diclofenac there were so many vultures that it took less than an hour to perform the ritual. They have since installed solar panels on the Tower of Silence to help decompose the bodies. This issue has caused deep divides the Parsi community, many of whom don’t want their bodies to rot at the sacred site. Crows and kites come to the temple as well, but it is so rare to see a vulture that they have considered enclosing captive vultures in the tower, though this too has generated controversy about the sacred nature of these burials.
Initially researchers thought the birds had a virus that caused kidney degeneration. Once the kidneys failed the birds died of visceral gout. Soon after it was discovered that diclofenac, which is safe for human consumption, was highly toxic to these birds that routinely feed from dead livestock. Farmers use diclofenac as an anti-inflamitory and pain killer for their cattle, especially with elderly or dying cows and oxen. Because it is illegal to slaughter cattle and many cattle work until the ends of their lives, was an affordable way for farmers to keep their livestock more productive and in less pain until their last days. A course of diclofenac can be administered for less than a dollar. Meloxicam, another anti inflammatory medication, can now be purchased for a price comparable to diclofenac – though it has taken a few years for the price to go down. India’s government made it illegal to use diclofenac for livestock in 2006, yet pharmaceutical companies continue to sell large bottles of diclofenac, encouraging pharmacists to continue the sell the drug for large animals. A recent study showed that the ban on diclofenac is slowing the death of vultures from a 40% population decline every year to 18% mortality, which is still extremely high considering the dismal population of remaining vultures. One study shows that malaria may also be causing vulture death. Captive breeding programs have been started in various places in India, but raising vultures in captivity is not simple. Pairs mate for life and lay one egg a year. It takes four years for a vulture to reach sexual maturity. These challenging statistics caused one scientist to remark that vultures would not reach their former numbers during our lifetime. At least the Peregrine Fund has had reasonable success breeding vultures and their cousins the California Condor in captivity and can aid India in efforts to save its vulture species. Though with only around 350 California Condors alive in the United States, this is not a heart warming figure.
From a Western perspective, India’s ban on cow slaughter may seem antiquated or irresponsible. Questions like, “Why keep cows or oxen around for so long in the first place?” And, “aren’t people in India being negligent by letting cattle live out their natural lives when famine or hunger is a very real problem for many of India’s villagers?” Though these questions may be sincere or sympathetic, they reveal a lack of understanding about the importance that cattle play in people’s lives. Cattle are still used as labor to pull carts or plow fields, and their manure provides cooking fuel, building material, and compost. A live cow is rarely useless, even if she is barren and no longer giving milk. Unlike in Western countries, farmers rarely grow grain for native breeds of cattle, though cattle feed and supplements are becoming increasingly common for the less hearty Western breeds of cattle or crossbred cows that are not adapted to conditions in India. Native cattle can survive on the bi-products of farming like rice stalk hay and cooking scraps, as well the forage growing along roadsides and abandoned lots.
Anthropologist Marvin Harris, the author of Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture argues that cattle are almost always worth more to villagers than the short term benefits their meat would provide. If a cow survives a drought or famine there is always the potential that she would provide milk again. If killed, her services are lost and there may not be the resources to buy another cow. 70% of India’s population resides in rural areas, most making their livelihood as farmers. Though some things have changed since the 1970’s, when this book was published, cattle still play a significant role in rural life and are valuable to farmers even into old age. It is unfortunate to see a drug that improved the welfare of aging cattle has caused this shocking and sad decline to one of India’s keystone species.
Many are also concerned about public health problems that may follow in the wake of the vultures’ demise. Populations of feral dogs, another scavenger, have increased with the unlimited food suply. Feral dog bites are the main cause of rabies in humans and some worry that the loss of vultures will mean that more people will come into contact with feral dogs. Others worry that fresh water could be affected by rotting carcasses that are not disposed of properly. Environmentalists are also concerned about the increase in population of other forest scavengers and what their presence might do to fragile wildlife populations. The long term affects of the vulture crisis is still unknown. India is not the only country that has lost vultures due to diclofenac. Its neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal have seen populations of their vultures plummet, as well as Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Historically vultures have been revered as symbols of re-birth and balance. They are one creature that never kills its prey, but eats only what has already died, which is viewed as a symbol of ahimsa, the principle to “do no harm”, that many Hindus and Jains subscribe to. Vultures also figure into the vast cast of characters in Hindu mythology. Vishnu’s vehicle is Guarda, a demi-god that is half man and half eagle or vulture. Guarda’s son Jayatu, was a mythological vulture who is represented by the folk dancer in the photo above. There is a shrine being built to Jayatu on a mountain in Kerala that will one day be the largest functioning statue in the world, complete with a 4-D movie theater and visitor center inside. To see the proposed plans for this stunning shrine click here. With vulture populations continuing to decline at 18% a year, it is a very real possibility that if they became extinct vultures could join the other gods as mythological creatures that bestow their blessings in spirit only.
To my readers in India, please help vultures by stopping the use of diclofenac in India. If you are a veterinarian, please stop the illegal sale of diclofenac and encourage pharmacists to sell meloxicam to farmers instead. Even though the efforts to save the vultures require the cooperation of many at least the source of the problem is known. There remain mysteries on other continents about new recent massive species die offs like white nose syndrome in brown bats in the United States and colony collapse in honey bees, both of which have not been linked to any one cause as of yet. I hope that South East Asian vultures are not lost to a problem that can be easily solved with the correct education and personal choices. In this instance cattle merely serve as the vehicle for human negligence.