Vultures are Important to Human Life

Vulture Carcass Disposal

In India and Nepal cows have a sacred status for Hindus and are not eaten. As a result, livestock carcasses became available for vultures in Asia and became their principal food source, in addition to carcasses of wild animals like deer and wild cattle. Vultures never kill, they only scavenge. In fact, vultures are extremely effective and efficient scavengers and a flock can reduce an adult cow carcass to bare bones within an hour. This rapid cleaning mechanism has been the traditional way of disposing of carcass in Asia and communities continue to place carcasses of animals on the outskirts of villages or at large municipal dumps.

During the early 1990s vultures in India consumed around 20 million tons of carrion annually. The collapse of vulture numbers in the Indian subcontinent means that there is now an abundance of available meat and caresses across the region – a gap that other scavengers are now rising in population to fill.

Filling the Gap

With the almost complete collapse in vulture numbers, South Asia has now lost 99% of its carcass disposal system. Vulture declines have been associated with an increase in feral dogs across the region – a population that was once numbered at 17-18 million in the early 1980s, reached 30 million by 2005.

At carcass dumps the situation is severe with packs of several hundred dogs taking the place of the hundreds or thousands of vultures that used to be present. Such large packs of dogs can be highly aggressive and the Indian press has reported cases of children and adults being killed. Moreover, the increase in dog numbers and rotting animal carcasses has major implications for the potential risk of both human and animal diseases, such as, anthrax, brucellosis and tuberculosis. A major concern is that the rise in feral dog population also furthers the spread of rabies in the region.

Rabies in India

Currently India has the highest incidence of rabies in the world. About 60% of all documented cases are reported in India (equaling 20,000 cases each year). Of these, 96% are a result of dog bites. An economic evaluation shows that between 1993-2006 alone, the costs associated with the decline of vultures combined with the management and cost of rabies could be as much as US $ 34 billion.

The costs to conserve vultures are a fraction of this total.

Towers of Silence

The Parsi religion prohibits the burial or cremation of their dead. Instead they hold a ‘sky burial’ where the body is left in the open for nature to take its course. In India, vultures were responsible for cleaning the bodies left at the ceremonial centers such as, the Towers of Silence, in Mumbai, usually within a matter of hours. Since the decline in vulture numbers, the Parsi are having considerable difficulty in taking care of their dead.

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