PINJORE, India, June 4 (IPS) -- At Asia's first Vulture Care Center in this northern city, scientists are battling to save the scavenging bird, which faces extinction due to a mysterious viral infection that is a serious public health menace. "India's vulture population has declined by over 98 percent over the past decade from tens of thousands of birds to just a few hundred, leading to a serious ecological imbalance," said R. D. Jakati, who is in charge of the vulture center in the Himalayan foothills in Punjab, some 300 kilometers north of Delhi.

There has definitely been an "exponential" rise in the number of stray dogs that feed on rotting flesh and spread rabies, experts add. "Carrion-eating dogs can become a major human problem."
The carrion-consuming birds are now on the critically endangered list of BirdLife International, the global network of conservation groups based in Britain. Declining vulture numbers have triggered serious public health problems. Rotting carrion lies around for days in towns and villages across India, and is believed to be spreading communicable infections like tuberculosis, anthrax and foot-and-mouth disease.

There has definitely been an "exponential" rise in the number of stray dogs that feed on rotting flesh and spread rabies, experts add. Their concern is high because more than 20,000 Indians die of rabies each year, the highest rate in the world. "Carrion-eating dogs can become a major human problem," Jakati said in an interview. In Bikaner, Rajasthan, for instance, over 1,000 vicious dogs inhabited a large carrion dumping ground. This poses a serious threat to the local population, many of whom they regularly attack. "The project aims to identify the reasons behind the decline in India's vulture population and to develop corrective measures," Britain's environment minister Elliot Morley said at the center's inauguration earlier this year.

Established with a $140,000 grant from Britain, the research facility, nestling in a forested area, includes a diagnostic laboratory and voluminous cages that at present hold 13 ailing vultures. They are suffering from the fatal virus, which causes their necks to droop and induces laziness before killing them off. Scientists working with their counterparts from the Darwin Initiative for Survival of Species and the National Birds of Prey Center at Gloucestershire, Britain, also hope to breed around 40 healthy vultures in captivity. Center scientist Vibhu Prakash said several Eurasian Griffon and Himalayan Griffon vultures have been radio-collared in order to map their migration patterns as they travel back and forth from Central Asia and Africa, carrying the unidentified disease with them.

One such tagged vulture has been tracked nearly 5,000 kilometers away in Mongolia. Prakash said it was "vitally urgent" to identify what exactly ailed the vultures, especially since infections like AIDS and mad cow disease had first surfaced in animals before jumping across species to humans. The same is believed to be the case with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Ailing and dead vultures have also been found in neighboring Nepal and Pakistan, and there is concern that the avian disease could spread to other continents where these scavenging birds play a major role in the ecological system. In African countries, for instance, communities depend on vultures to dispose of animal carcasses, as no carrion removal system exists.

A few vultures can efficiently dispose of a cow carcass within minutes, a fact that is important to followers of the Zoroastrian religion. India's small Parsee community in Mumbai have been adversely affected by the declining vulture population because, until a decade ago, the birds would scavenge their dead in the secluded 'Towers of Silence' in the heart of the city, in keeping with ancient Zoroastrian tradition. The Parsees cannot cremate, bury or submerge their dead in water because they consider a corpse impure, and their Zoroastrian faith does not permit them to defile the elements with it. British expertise in breeding vultures in captivity for the Parsees has been called off, following differences within the orthodox community that had erected solar reflectors to hasten the decomposition of human bodies given the 'lack' of vultures.

Officials at the Vulture Center were skeptical about the future of their own institution, because funding for it runs out next year and the federal government has so far shown little interest in keeping the project going. When vulture populations were reported to be dying out a few years ago in the Keoladeo National Park in western Rajasthan state, scientists attributed this to the indiscriminate use of the pesticide DDT, both as an agricultural pesticide and in malaria control. Large amounts of DDT had been dumped on Rajasthan to quell an outbreak of malaria. This, they believed, facilitated the entry of the chemical into the food chain.

Tests carried out by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in Delhi showed that lactating mothers were passing on unacceptable amounts of DDT to infants in breast milk. Other tests showed unacceptably high amounts of DDT in the flesh of cows, which is left largely to vultures to feed on because of Hindu religious taboos concerning the animal. Scientific experiments have shown that DDT can interfere with bird reproduction by affecting the embryonic development of bird species or by reducing the thickness of eggshells.

But in spite of warnings about the rapid decline in the vultures' numbers by leading environmental groups such as Greenpeace International and the Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment (CSE), the government and the environment ministry refused to act. At one point, the ministry even refused researchers' permission to either trap the dying vultures or to send their infected tissue samples for detailed examination abroad, for fear of losing genetic material to foreign pharmaceutical companies and those interested in patenting the genomes of various organisms.

But last year, with the vultures close to extinction, the Indian government permitted tissue samples from a few deceased birds to be sent to Melbourne, Australia, for analysis, signalling some hope for the winged scavengers.