A few weeks ago, while driving past a sign for Phansad wildlife sanctuary in Raigad district, I remembered reading about vulture restaurants. In an effort to curtail the decline of vultures, the governments of Maharashtra, Punjab and West Bengal set up ‘restaurants’ where the endangered birds can dine safely early this year. These are simply spots strewn with animal carcases that are safe to eat. Phansad is the chosen sanctuary in Maharashtra.
The concept isn’t new. Nepal, South Africa and Cambodia, where vulture populations are also threatened, have them. I thought it a rather sweet gesture to open a sort of health food eatery for vultures.
Vultures have become highly endangered over the last few decades because of the bovine painkiller, Diclofenac. It’s fatal for birds that feed on the carcases of farm animals that have been administered the drug. Diclofenac has been banned in India, Nepal and Pakistan. But as it’s still available in the market, the ban hasn’t effectively stemmed vulture deaths. The carcases fed to vultures that visit the restaurant are tested for Diclofenac.
However conservationists say that vulture restaurants are not the only solution. In order to stop them from feeding on carcases outside the restaurant, the entire habitat must be made free of animals treated with Diclofenac.
One community is as eager as the conservationists to see that the project succeeds. For Parsis, the loss of vultures means a loss of funerary rites. Bodies that are laid to rest in towers of silence are traditionally picked clean by vultures. Liberal Parsis have suggested doing away with, what they consider, an outdated practice. A major debate erupted on this issue in 2006, when a 65-year-old lady, Dhun Baria, secretly photographed rotting corpses in the wells of the towers of silence. After her mother was laid to rest, Baria was told by the khandiyas, the bier carriers, that it would take years for the body to decompose. A shocked Baria decided to investigate.
Cartoon by IC and Azeema Pardiwala