India’s Vultures Poisoned By Drugs – Devastating The Environment And ‘Tower Of Silence’

India’s Vultures Poisoned By Drugs – Devastating The Environment And ‘Tower Of Silence’

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 6.29.34 pmIndian vultures are 99% wiped out because of exposure to the anti-inflammatory drug known as diclofenac, prescribed by Indian vets for farmers, to keep injured animals working. After the animal dies, vultures become exposed to the drug when they scavenge the animal’s body, causing kidney failure and death to the vulture. The Indian government eventually banned the drug in 2006, but the human-diclofenac drug is STILL prescribed by some Indian vets to farmers, consequently killing off the remaining Critically Endangered vultures on the IUCN Red List and CITES; the category for animals closest to extinction.


Captive breeding efforts have been painstakingly slow because vultures take five years to reach reproductive maturity and when they do, they mate only once a year, producing only one egg. At that rate it will take decades of captive breeding simply to prevent the birds from going completely extinct.

Sadly, scientists do not expect any Indian vulture born today to be able to survive until maturity because of the sporadic presence of diclofenac in its food source

Scientists have estimated that as recently as the early 1990’s, there were more than forty million vultures in India alone. Within a matter of a few years their numbers plummeted to just a few thousand, faster than any other avian collapse in history.

The three species affected are the oriental white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed vultures all faced extinction as researchers pinpointed the cause of the vultures’ demise to kidney failure, but had no idea why it was occurring. By 1999, the situation became so grave that not one pair of vultures could be seen together.

India's vultures.

India’s vultures.

In late 2001, Dr. J. Lindsay Oaks, Professor of Microbiology at Washington State University, began tests on the deceased birds looking for viruses, bacteria, heavy metal poisoning, pesticides and nutritional deficiencies to find a cause for their kidney failure. It wasn’t until early 2003 when Oaks decided to look at their food source which was almost entirely domestic livestock, including cattle.

In a shocking discovery, Oaks uncovered the missing link, the drug Diclofenac, which was being widely misused by Indian farmers who were administering large amounts of the drug to their cattle, rather than letting their animal rest and heal. Although India’s main religion, Hinduism, sees cows as sacred and its against Indian law to kill or cause them pain, farmers bent their religious rules to push anti-inflammatory drugs into already injured cattle, easing the conscience of the farmer to work the animal into the ground, until completely crippled or death. When the injured cow would eventually die, they would be sent to “carcass fields” to decompose because they couldn’t be buried or cremated, according to the same Hindu religious reasons.

India's declining vultures.

India’s declining vultures.

After careful dissection of the data, Oaks discovered the vultures were dying of kidney failure from the accumulated Diclofenac in the cows, which vultures were consuming on the carcass fields! Even more shocking was that the Indian government did not bother to act on the information and ban the drug until 2006.

Years later, the drug is STILL used in India for veterinary use, even though a safe alternatives, meloxicam exists. Continued use of diclofenac in India almost certainly guarantees the number of vultures will continue to fall as the birds are killed off through vets prescribing the drug.

July, 2014, a meeting of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) Scientific Council (SCC18) was held in Germany and included the issue of use of diclofenac in Jorbeer, Bikaner causing death of vultures in their preferred habitat.

“Diclofenac is still available on the market in multi-dose vials and a number of veterinary doctors are abusing multi-dose vials of diclofenac sodium, generally of 10 ml to 30 ml meant for human consumption to treat animals illegally. In 2011-12 number of 30 ml vials sold by medical retailers in six [territories], of Bikaner district were 7150,” said Dr Dau Lal Bohra, PhD (Animal Microbiology & Wild Life), Ornithologist and Conservationist who has been working on vultures for the last seven years.

Baby vulture from a captive breeding campaign.

Baby vulture from a captive breeding campaign.

Conservationists have now successfully bred each of the three critically endangered Indian vulture species in captivity, but it is painstakingly slow. The birds were bred in a conservation partnership consisting of Birdlife International, Bombay Natural History Society, International Center For Birds Of Prey, Royal Society for Protection of Birds, and Zoological Society of London.

Vultures are part of natures clean-up crew and play a vital role within the circle of life, disposing of carcasses. The vultures strong stomach acid and high body temperature destroy corpse pathogens such as rabies and tuberculosis with little to no ill effects unlike any other animal.

Vultures are very patient and never attack anything that is still living. They are not a pretty bird to look at and they eat dead bodies for a living – but they are vital for our planet and we need to start respecting their role in ecology.

Carcasses which would have been cleaned-up by vultures now lay in fields rotting, often seriously contaminating drinking water. While the vulture population has been decimated, the feral dog population has exploded, leaving the dogs strong and healthy as they regularly gorge on cattle carcasses.

India's Carcass Fields where dead animals are taken to decompose and be eaten.

India’s Carcass Fields where dead animals are taken to decompose and be eaten.

A vulture’s metabolism is a true “dead-end” for pathogens, but dogs and rats become carriers of the pathogens, which is a serious health issue because in 2014 India was said to have 30 millions stray dogs. Dogs and rats are not equipped to clean up as efficiently as vultures and their physiology isn’t as well-adapted to scavenging.

Instead of destroying diseases such as rabies, dogs simply transmit them. Dog bites are the number one cause of rabies in India, according to the Indian Journal Of Medical research, 2014. To read more about dog bites and rabies in India: click here.

The loss of vultures has also caused a great increase in leopards invading inhabited areas to prey on feral dogs, which in turn increases the risk of leopard attacks on children and subsequently, the killing of leopards by frightened home owners.


In a bold move to save vultures, the German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health GmbH removed their Indian Formulation Patent on their drug meloxicam, which does the exact same job as diclofenac, but is not harmful to vultures. Removing their patent meant the retail price of the drug became compatible with diclofenac. Sadly, some Indian vets are still prescribing diclofenac over the safe alternative, meloxicam.

Vultures: Integral Role In ‘Towers Of Silence’ Burials

Vultures play a vital role in an ancient religious groups burial rituals, which involves laying their dead out for vultures to devour, on top of colossal stone structures called Towers of Silence.

Because the Indian vulture was taken to the brink of extinction by misuse of veterinary drugs, this dramatically affected the Parsis communities burial method. After six years of negotiations between the Indian government and Parsis leaders, it was agreed to build giant aviaries to attempt to revive the two species of vultures nearing extinction, which are fundamental to the Parsis Towers of Silence.

The government would provide the initial population of birds and the cost of building the aviaries and maintaining the vultures was estimated at $5 million spread over 15 years. See below for more on the Towers of Silence.

Parsis People

According to Parsi beliefs, vultures serve as intermediaries between earth and sky for the deceased person to get to heaven. Since 1673, the dead body is placed on a ‘Tower Of Silence’ at Malabar, where vultures consume the body and liberate the deceased one’s soul. Because vulture numbers have dipped critically low, bodies now take six months to a year to disappear, instead of hours.


Parsis see burying or cremating the dead as polluting nature and will not allow it. The tower is similar to a tiered amphitheater that can hold more than 250 bodies at a time.

The Zorastorian faith is the traditional religion of Persia (Iran), before being exterminated by Muslim invasions. A millennia ago a group of Zoroastrians fled persecution in their homeland and settled in India, primarily in what’s now Mumbai.

Back in 2006, ith just a handful of the endangered vultures remaining in the city and with solar panels installed in their Tower of Silence to speed up decomposition working poorly during the monsoon rains, Zoroastrians were not happy.

Pictures of rotting corpses piled at the funeral grounds, secretly snapped by a mourning woman, sparked a furor over the ancient rituals. When Dhun Baria learned her mother’s corpse would take at least a year to decompose, she slipped into the grounds and took secret photographs and video footage that have shocked her community.

“It is a terrible sight, the stench is horrible. It’s as if the bodies have been tortured. The dead have no dignity,” she said.

Dhun Baria of Mumbai, who photographed the Towers of Silence.

Dhun Baria of Mumbai, who photographed the Towers of Silence.

With vultures listed as critically endangered in 2006 and three to four Parsis dying daily in Mumbai, a city of 16 million people, it is clear that there were no enough vultures to consume the corpses, as the smell wafted through the affluent neighborhood.

There are still smaller birds like crows, which also will consume the bodies, but the solar concentrators often keep them away during the day because it’s too hot. They’re also less efficient than vultures. A job that would take hours for a flock of vultures now can take weeks. And as Mumbai has grown into a mega-city, slowly decomposing bodies have made some people squeamish. In 2006 about 82,000 of the world’s 130,000 practicing Parsis lived in India, most in Mumbai.

Parsis Funeral Ceremonies

It is estimated to be over 3,000 years since the religious commandments of the Parsis were first issued. At the core of the way Parsis dispose of their dead lies the one main principle: reserving all possible respect for the dead, the body, after its separation from the immortal soul, should be disposed of in a way the least harmful and the least injurious to the living.

When a person is seen to be on the point of death, preparations are made for the disposal of the body and priests are called in. The dying person is sometimes made to drink a few drops of the consecrated Haoma water and sometimes the juice of a few grains of pomegranate. A short time after death, the body of the deceased is washed with water and a white clean suit of cotton clothes is put over him. The relations of the deceased now meet him for the last time.

Parsis priests.

Parsis priests.

After this time, nobody is allowed to touch or come into contact with the body which is then entrusted to two persons who are trained to this work. The body is lifted from its place by these two persons and put on slabs of stone, placed in a corner of the room. The body is never placed with its head towards the North.

The next process is that of [the seeing of the dog]. This consists of making a dog see the dead body – a dog with two eyes-like-spots just above it’s two eyes. In case a dog is not procurable, flesh-devouring birds like vultures should be allowed, if a flesh-eating bird happens to pass and see the corpse from above.

A priest sits before the fire and recites the Avesta till the time of the removal of the body to the Tower of Silence, which is done any time during the day and never at night. The body must be exposed to the sun.

The corpse-bearers use an iron bier and there must be at least two men, even if the deceased were a mere infant that could be carried by one man. Having pairs in funeral ceremonies is intended to create a view of sympathy and mutual assistance. The bier is lifted up and carried into the Tower, where the body must be exposed and left naked, to entice the vulture’s attention.


The Tower

The Tower is a round massive structure built completely of solid stone. A few steps from the ground lead to an iron gate which opens on a circular platform of solid stone, about three hundred feet in circumference, with a circular well in the center. First row for corpses of males, second row for females and third row for children.

Before vulture numbers were decimated by the drug diclofenac, a corpse would be completely stripped of its flesh from vultures within an hour or two, and the bones of the denuded skeleton, when perfectly dried up by atmospheric influences and the powerful heat of the tropical sun, thrown into the well where they gradually crumble to dust, chiefly consisting of lime and phosphorus; thus the rich and the poor meet together on one level of equality after death.


It is incomprehensible that Indian veterinarians STILL prescribe diclofenac [in the human-dose], to enable farmers to over-work their cattle and knowingly kill vultures which have already been decimated by this exact same drug. Veterinarians have a clear understanding that every time they prescribe diclofenac to a farmer, they are signing death warrants for more vultures to be killed off. It is beyond disgraceful!

Nesting Indian vultures, which only hatch one egg a year.

Nesting Indian vultures, which only hatch one egg a year.

Veterinarians are also greatly damaging the Parsis community, which in turn hurts the community at large. Indian vultures only breed once a year and only lay one egg. With 99% of their population wiped out, Indian vultures are still in crisis. These amazing birds play an important role on our planet and without them, the ecological balance will be skewed in ways which can potentially affect all of us. Our beautiful planet needs every member of it’s clean up crew – because their role is vital.

Vultures may not be the world’s most beautiful bird, but they are the ones who ensure the planet is kept beautiful – for all of us to enjoy. It is time to put aside prejudices against vultures and embrace them for their amazing role in mother nature.

Diclofenac the Vulture Killing Drug Is Now On The EU Market BAN IT NOW

Thank you for reading,

Michele Brown.

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