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Striving to save vultures

Prabhat Sharan, September 15, 2013, Mumbai:

Exhibitions are being held in different places to save the endangered bird

They are like Alexander Dumas’ “Three Musketeers”. Instead of wielding muskets or swords, Dr Percy Avari, Dr Kazveen Umrigar and Dhun Karkaria travel in lanes with a night lantern trying to make people how vultures are vanishing.

To a major extent, the crusade stems from their love for the nature.

But to some extent the crusade also revolves around the faith and rituals of the original fire worshippers of the world-Zoroastrians aka Parsis. Known for their love for living creatures big or small, the Parsi community, always in news for its dwindling population, also has a fire burning deep in the heart throbbing faithfully to the maxim “never say die”.

Call it animism, paganism and pantheistic-primordial religious feelings in
humankind, it had its origins in myriad appearances and manifestations of
nature, with the passage of birth and death as key fulcrums. These pathways of life with an unknown origin and end also sparked existential conu­ndrum in human mind resulting in rituals and funerary practices purporting to connect various dimensions of meanings.


Every religion and community since ancient times has evolved their funeral practices based on their faith. So have the fire-worshippers. The three have been trying to muster support among their own folks as well as others with regard to the sudden disappearance of the vultures from the Indian sub-continent.

Zoroastrianism considers “earth, fire and water” as sacred and important to mankind; thus the funerary practice lay emphasis on a disposal whereby “Mother Earth” remains clean and free from any kind of pollution that may follow a putrefaction of a corpse.

It is for this reason that Parsis have constr­ucted “Towers of Silence” on hill tops or away from localities frequented by vultu­res, nature's most powerful scavengers which play an important role in the disposal of dead.

However, since late nineties, ornithologists have been observing that vultures, which are considered as one of the hardiest birds in the world, have been slowly dwindling. In fact, studies carried out by various bodies, including the Bombay Natural History Society, revealed that they were dying in large numbers as if there was some kind of epidemic that was decimating these  birds .

Even priests at “ Tower of Silence”  began noticing that huge birds were disappearing. However, they were as befuddled and flummoxed as the ornitho- logists, who had by then begun probing this strange plague killing these birds.

Dr Kazveen Umrigar, former director of Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park in Pune, and now a wildlife conservationist, says: “ It was sometime in late nineties when reports about vultures not being seen near Tower of Silence started trickling in. And the situation became more grim with passing years.

It is only after intensive investigations that wildlife scientists were finally able to pin down the cause of the deaths among vultures who till a few decades back used to look like that one of those invulnerable hardy bird.

The cause, it was found, lay in the administration of “diclofenac” injection to livestock anim­als by veterinarians. The vultures whilst scavenging the carcasses also ingested this chemical which ultimately proved fatal to them and has nearly exterminated their species.
Two years ago, Dr Umrigar, Dr Avari and Karkaria, an artist, envisaged a road show project, to educate and create awareness of the importance of vultures in habitat as well as the haphazard hazar­dous use of chemical drugs, through visual depiction of coloured panels.

The project, sponsored by the UKbased Erach and Roshan Sadri Foundation, emphasised that it was time Parsis became aware of the disappearance of vultures which play a very important role in their funeral rites.

“Thus we started holding exhibitions in Parsi colonies. The response has been extremely positive from the community and our signature petition to the Prime Minister seeking a ban on the use of diclofenac in the treatment of livestock by farmers and veterinarians also evoked a massive support,” Dr Umrigar points out.

Most Parsis reside in old Mumbai colonies since pre-Independence days; the road show has managed to cover almost all of them in the past few weeks. The road show now intends to move to other towns before focussing on schools and educational institutions.

Dr Averi, Asst Professor, Department of Poultry Science, Bombay Veterinary College, says: “Though the initial phase comprises Parsi colonies, it would be erroneous to consider that we intend to focus only on our community. In fact, the project, which also has support from Wildlife Conservation Society and Global Health Program , has nothing to do with religion or any community per se. It focusses on the adverse impact on the environment and human habitat, as well also on the survival of the bird itself.

“We have national campaigns on tiger and other animals. But we are yet to take serious cognisance of the decimation of vultures. Its extinction portends even the extinction of mankind. That is what Karkaria, our interpretative artist, kept in mind while designing the panels.”

Karkaria says: “They are now being made in Tamil, Marathi and Hindi. The aim is to educate and bring awareness amongst children. We cannot leave them a denuded forest or a denuded sky with not just an ozone hole but also a void where once we used to silhouettes of these birds circling the horizons. That is why the panels have been designed to provoke youngsters to think and empat­hise with our friends from the natural world... because the future of world lies with them.”

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