The decimation of the Indian vulture is due to the widespread use of Diclofenac for treating livestock. Veterinary Diclofenac is used to treat pain
and inflamation in cattle, and is often administered when the animal is close to death. In South-East Asia, dead cattle are usually disposed of in
designated dump sites which are accessible to carrion feeders. When vultures were observed to be dying in large numbers, analysis of their remains
revealed high levels of Diclofenac in their systems which had led to catastrophic liver and kidney failure. In 2006 the drug’s use was banned in
India, and captive breeding programmes, particularly amongst the Parsee hope to help restore the vulture population. The drug however is still in use
in areas outside of Indian jurisdiction, including those bordering Tibet the other major culture that still practices a form of excarnation, the Sky
Burial or Jhator.
Zoroaster and Buddha share numerous similarities and they laid comparative, if divergent, paths towards the attainment spiritual of enlightenment and
(re)unification with the creator. The Tibetan Sky Burial was first documented in the Book of the Dead around the 12th century, while the Zoroastrians
adoption of excarnation while practiced in some areas for at least 3,000 years, was indoctrinated as the official means of disposal of the dead
during the Sassanid period, between the 3rd to 7th centuries, and is recorded in some detail in the Rivayat and Saddars. The Persians considered fire
to be sacred and so, unlike the Greeks and Romans, considered cremation sacrilegious.
Jhator is the “giving of alms to birds” and is considered a fitting way in which to both express thanks and to compensate for consumption of meat
during life. The Tibetans of course believe that the soul departs the body soon after death, transmigrating to a new body and new life, therefore,
once dead, there is only meat, food for the vultures. The Rogyapa, or ‘breaker of bodies’ perform their task, with the same detached
professionalism as a butcher, rendering the dead into bite sized pieces. As a mountain people to whom soil and wood are a scarce resource, every part
of the body is given over to the vultures to consume with even the bones being ground down for the vultures to eat. Not a morsel is wasted.
Tibet, prior to the arrival of Buddhism 2,300 years ago, or thereabouts, was governed by kings or chiefs who were believed to have descended from the
heavens via a magical ladder, an axis mundi which linked the three worlds of existence. The Bön religion that the people practiced was shamanic in
nature and while Jhator is not understood to have been practiced, the spiritual nature of the sky and the birds was integral to their beliefs. The
vulture, or God –bird, was considered to be particularly sacred, regarded as a Dakini, or feminine sky spirit. Much like the Egyptian Nekhmet, the
vulture was considered a protector spirit, associated with motherhood and bestowing of divine king ship.
Today in the west this heritage has long been forgotten. In North America and much of Europe the vulture was erroneously associated with the spread
of disease and suffered widespread, often systemised, persecution that led to them teetering on the precipice of extinction. While they are now
protected species in most countries they are now under threat from the continuing use of Diclofenac.
Despite the Indian ban on diclofenac and it’s known toxic effect on vultures, it has recently been approved for use in Italy and Spain, home to the
Griffon Vulture. Jose Taveres, director of the Vulture Conservation Foundation; "It defies common sense to approve of a drug when there is abundant,
solid evidence to show that it is deadly to so many species of birds and that it causes such ecological damage. We now know diclofenac was responsible
for the deaths of tens of millions of vultures in India. Several species were brought to the brink of extinction in the process. Once the Indian
government realised that, it banned diclofenac. That was in 2006. Now two countries in Europe have decided to give it the go-ahead. It is simply
These birds which we once thought of as heavenly beings, who inspired our belief in angels and spirits which defended us from evil demons desperately
need our protection. While we may no longer require them to dispose of our own dead they still serve a vital function within the food chain ensuring
that the cadavers of wild and long-ranging grazing animals are safely removed from often delicate ecosystems. The spread of rabies in India has been
directly related to the absence of vultures, and it is feared that if this pattern continues that this trend will continue to those diseases carried
by rats, such as the Bubonic Plague. We should not allow ourselves to lose yet another of nature’s most amazing and wonderous creations, especially
not one that has served us and become so integral to the beliefs that have made our own existence such a success.