Vultures At Risk

vulture_branch.jpgI’ve had a warm feeling toward vultures, buzzards and other scavenger birds since the time I attended a wedding in Burkina Faso, the arid, land-locked West African country, back in the early 1990s, and looked up to see clusters of big, bad-lookin’ buzzards hanging around on trees, waiting for the event to be over so they could swoop in for the remnants of the dozen or so sheep that had been slaughtered for the occasion. It was one of those “hey, what’s up?” moments humans can have with animals, when you realize that we’re all in this together, that each creature serves its function, and that the social and cultural practices of one species have significant effects on the well-being of others. I want to say it “humanized” the buzzards for me, which obviously isn’t the right word, but it demystified them and made me appreciate them. Nuff respect to the scavenger birds.

Today tipster Sakshi brings to our attention a fascinating article from Smithsonian magazine on vultures in the subcontinent, which not only offers an interesting glimpse into the lives of these birds but, more importantly, shows how closely we and they — and other species — lead interwoven lives and how fragile that balance can be. It turns out that scientists, picking up on the observations of cattle herders and others in the field, have noticed a substantial decline in the long-billed vulture population in the subcontinent for some years. The disappearance of the lead scavenger has resulted in the accumulation of un-scavenged cattle corpses as well as the growth of packs of feral dogs, in ways that you can read about in the article. It has also placed a new burden on secondary scavenger birds that used to only come in after the larger, more powerful vultures. Those birds in turn have become vulnerable to whatever it is that has decimated the vultures:

… across the subcontinent all three species of Gyps vultures are disappearing. Dead livestock lie uneaten and rotting. These carcasses are fueling a population boom in feral dogs and defeating the government’s efforts to combat rabies. Vultures have become so rare that the Parsi in Mumbai have resorted to placing solar reflectors atop the Towers of Silence to hasten the decomposition of bodies. International conservation groups now advocate the capture of long-billed, white-backed and slender-billed vultures for conservation breeding.

So what’s the cause? After initially speculating it was some kind of virus, scientists now have strong proof that it’s a particular medication that herders give cattle that is toxic to the vultures. This brings into the story the Indian pharmaceutical industry and its history of reverse-engineering cheap drugs, which arguably has done a lot to save human lives but has also resulted in a proliferation of drugs on the market without necessarily sufficient regulation or understanding of appropriate use. The chain of effects goes on:

Public health officials say it’s likely that India’s rat population is growing too, sharing the bounty of abandoned carcasses with feral dogs, and raising the probability of outbreaks of bubonic plague and other rodent-transmitted human diseases. Livestock diseases may increase too. Vultures are resistant to anthrax, brucellosis and other livestock diseases, and helped control them by consuming contaminated flesh, thus removing reservoirs of infectious organisms. Some municipalities are now resorting to burying or burning carcasses, expending precious land, firewood and fossil fuels to replace what Rahmani calls “the beautiful system nature gave us.”

In all, this is a powerful story of interdependence and one that, just possibly, might have a happy ending, as the governments of India, Pakistan and Nepal have grown aware of the problem and taken remedial action. Read the article for that story as well as a rich perspective on the interconnectedness of all things, one that might, at a minimum, help us step back from some of the ridiculous disputes over trivial matters that we humans, including those of us who hang out at this site, sometimes so enjoy wallowing in. There’s also a nice sidebar interview with the article’s writer, Susan McGrath:

Well, I knew that my trip to India was going to be different than most people’s trips to India. All my friends were saying, “Oh you’re so lucky! The crafts! The clothing! The wildlife!” And I spent half my time in India in carcass dumps.

Glad you did, Ms. McGrath. And to the vultures: keep ya ugly heads up, my avian brothers and sisters, stay strong!

22 thoughts on “Vultures At Risk

  1. Maybe it’s just my mood this morning afternoon, but reading this made me feel like the world is coming to an end.

    When I would visit Mumbai with my family as a child, my mother would tell me she’d leave me up “on the hill” for the vultures if I didn’t behave.

    I behaved.

  2. After initially speculating it was some kind of virus, scientists now have strong proof that itÂ’s a particular medication that herders give cattle that is toxic to the vultures. This brings into the story the Indian pharmaceutical industry and its history of reverse-engineering cheap drugs, which arguably has done a lot to save human lives but has also resulted in a proliferation of drugs on the market without necessarily sufficient regulation or understanding of appropriate use.

    This is a huge problem in India. Leave alone the ecological impacts, which you describe well, more immediate problems are appearing that are the direct result of the misuse of drugs. I can’t seem to find the link at present, but I recall reading about a study that was published last summer that quantified the rate at which resistant strains of various common diseases are appearing in various countries. India has among the highest rate of appearance because antibiotics are readily available, relatively affordable, and totally unregulated. This problem could lead to serious problems on a much faster rate than the inter-special impacts described here.

  3. Maybe it’s just my mood this morning afternoon, but reading this made me feel like the world is coming to an end.

    Tamasha, the problem is that the world isn’t coming to an end and will do just fine. The problem is that we are doing violence to ourselves by failing to recognize how everything is connected.

  4. “Vultures are considered holy by the tibetians and are involved in the sky burial of human corpses. “

    out of curiosity, what do observant Parsis and Tibetans do about death rites in the United States or other countries outside of India/Tibet?

    speaking of linkages, one of the controversial proposed solutions (which has its own environmental consequences) to saving endangered species is

  5. Some time in the mid 90′s, I remember going on a school trip to Alwar in Rajasthan. We were passing through this stretch of road that runs through the forest, and for some reason there were vultures swooping around. They crashed against the front glass of the bus and on the sides. I was sitting on one of the windows, and trust me, the site nothing else scares me as much as that of a vulture.

    I do understand they play a very important role in the ecosystem, but I hate them. I’m probably about as scared of a vulture as I am of a tiger – simply because it’s uglier than anything else, and I get the feeling it’ll eat me alive. Come to think about it, in terms of ugliness even rats (the dirty gray ones) and crows are scary.

    Here’s the video we were shown in class, WARNING quite eerie http://www.tibetlink.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=677&Itemid=132

    Maybe I shouldn’t have watched the video after all.

  6. “Maybe I shouldn’t have watched the video after all.”

    Yea.. it’s quite intense, never really saw chopping off bodies as part of a monk’s life. I remember the first time I saw a vulture or more like vultures. My grandma’s house was by a busy road, it was early in the morning around 4 am, I woke up to the stench of something I knew was rotting outside, so I decided to walk out to the garden which had a gate that opened to the road. As I stepped outside to the garden I felt the calm on the road, everything was silent, even at 4am I had never before sensed that much silence around that place.. but that day everything was quite. When I looked at the side of the road there was at least 2 dozen vultures sitting quietly, very very quiet on the walls to the side of the road..one vulture on each post of the wall.. one after another till I saw the wall turn with the bend in the road.. I quietly backed away into the house.. obviously they were there for a feast of whatever it was that was dead on the road..I didn’t care to find out..but I can never forget the calm and the way the vultures stood there declaring what was theirs.

  7. vultures are a href=”http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/classicdisney/thatswhatfriendsarefor.htm”>our friends :)

  8. India has among the highest rate of appearance because antibiotics are readily available, relatively affordable, and totally unregulated.

    Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, if you are unfortunate enough to get infected with them, are really really horrible. In some sense it is the rolling back of modernity. And it’s a huge problem in India. :(

  9. Thanks for such a great post. I spend a lot of time looking up and seeing a raptor can make my day. It’s a shame that I so often see them as roadkill, a result of them being attracted to roadkill. I know this is creepy, but in my early morning runs, I often can be seen dragging ‘stuff’ to the side of the road.

  10. Thanks, Siddhartha, for blogging this.

    Vultures feeding is certainly not a pretty sight, but they are extremely elegant in flight, if you can ignore the terrible smell, that is. Also if you come across a skeleton they fed on, you have to admire the virtuosity: so perfectly cleaned up it won’t look out of place in a biology lab.

    The vulture reference in Omakara’s title track (‘chhat par aake giddh baithe, aur parnalo se khoon bahe’) never fails to set my hair on edge. It’d be tragic if such a magnificient animal vanished due to an unintended mistake by mankind.

  11. OOOooh I love this post! Dearest Tamasha, I think it’s just your mood, because it actually made me optimistic. (Maybe it’s just because I’m a nerdy ecofemme.) Perhaps not the article itself (though there’s reason for hope in the article too), but it makes me soooooo happy when people come to this realization:

    It was one of those “hey, what’s up?” moments humans can have with animals, when you realize that we’re all in this together, that each creature serves its function, and that the social and cultural practices of one species have significant effects on the well-being of others.

    Makes me even happier when that person is a desi… or really just anyone who doesn’t fit that white, dreadlocked, tree-hugging (etc.) profile. The notion that immigrants, poor people, urban dwellers and people of color don’t care (and/or don’t have a reason to care) about the environment is one of my biggest pet peeves. Everything you see, even in your most immediate surroundings (including yourself!!!) is part of “The Environment”, and you have as much right and responsibility to the greater environment — vultures and all — as some hippie or bobo.

    I spend a lot of time looking up and seeing a raptor can make my day. It’s a shame that I so often see them as roadkill, a result of them being attracted to roadkill. I know this is creepy, but in my early morning runs, I often can be seen dragging ‘stuff’ to the side of the road.

    I second what Saheli just said about this. Really coach, like I needed any more reasons to adore you… And I agree with you about watching predator birds — awesome spectacle. When I go camping around lakes, I see them gliding majestically over the water, going for the kill in breathtaking swoops. Amazing.

  12. Makes me even happier when that person is a desi… or really just anyone who doesn’t fit that white, dreadlocked, tree-hugging (etc.) profile.

    There are more of us out there than you would think.

  13. So heroic….like the time my hand plunged through the maggotty possum guts and I almost pissed my pants while retching.

    The next day though, it was such a beautiful sight to see the crows feasting without risk. And now I have a collection of skeletons around my garden.

  14. Makes me even happier when that person is a desi… or really just anyone who doesn’t fit that white, dreadlocked, tree-hugging (etc.) profile

    Then you’ll be delighted to hear about the Chipko movement. The word literally means hugger and some of these poor villagers have even lost their lives trying to protect trees. Also check out the Bishnoi tribe of Rajasthan. This is a fascinating group of people who care deeply about their environement and literally live their day to day lives with the conscioussness that all of us are in this together. The Bishnois were the ones who nabbed Salman Khan for killing the deer btw (one of the times).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chipko_movement

  15. Saw this a little late, but nice article. These once common birds in India declined at an unprecedented rate beginning in the latter half of the 90s. Some areas saw a 95% decrease in less than 3 years. A lot of folks really thought they would go extinct before anyone figures out whats going on. I don’t think theres a 100% consensus on what caused this decline, but its now widely accepted after a study by Washington State University that these birds were dying from eating carcasses of livestock treated with a common vetinary drug called Dicofenac. Prior to this study people thought it was everything from pesticide residue, bacteria, viruses etc. These birds are now slowly making a comeback, even though I don’t think there were any steps taken to kerb the use of Dicofenac. Its pretty sad how poorly documented and coordinated this whole effort is. These birds are quite a site to see as they ride thermals and soar over the countryside looking for carrion. About 15 years ago if you looked up into the skies pretty much anywhere in North India (they are not as common in the South) you could see vultures dotting the sky. Nowadays you have to be really fortunate to sight even one, except in some known pockets of the country. My personal favorite amongst the vultures in India is the Lammergier or Bearded Vulture. While trekking in the Himalayas I watched these magnificient birds with a wingspan of 10 feet, pick up bones from carcasses and fly thousands of feet into the air before dropping them onto the rocks below. They would then proceed to swoop down and feed on the bone marrow inside the broken bones.