Protecting Vultures, and an Ancient Religion
In a small green building in a forest clearing in the north Indian state of Haryana, Dr. Vibhu Prakash scans through CCTV images searching for evidence that could eventually help secure the future of an ancient burial rite.
He’s looking for signs that the vultures in the closely monitored aviary next door are preparing to breed.
For almost three thousand years, Parsis, or Zoroastrians as they are known outside India, have relied on vultures in their funereal practice of “dokhmenashini,” in which the bird consumes the bodies of the dead.
But after the Indian vulture population slumped 99%, from about 40 million in the 1980s to less than 100,000 in 2007, the tradition of sky burial in Towers of Silence – the concentric circles where Parsis place their dead to be eaten by birds of prey — is under threat. Despite the use of solar concentrators to desiccate the corpses, as well as help from other birds such as kites and crows to consume the flesh, the process is much less efficient without vultures.
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