India’s Vanishing Vultures
Indian Vultures were considered the most common large bird of prey in the world in 80s and early 90s and they were found in millions.
At first, no one noticed they were missing.
Vultures—massive and clumsy, their naked faces buried in rotting flesh along the roadside, on the banks of the Ganges, lining the high walls and spires of every temple and tower—were once so ubiquitous in India as to be taken for granted, invisible. And something in us didn’t want to see them. Vultures are cross-culturally uncharismatic—with their featherless gray heads, their pronounced brows that make for permanent scowls, their oversized blunt beaks capable of splintering bones. They vomit when threatened and reek of death. In South Asia, their broad wings can reach up to eight feet tip to tip, casting a great shadow from above as they circle, drawn by the distant smell of carrion. The world over, these voracious scavengers are viewed with disgust and associated with death—and we, instinctually, look away.
But for all of human history, vultures served India faithfully. They scoured the countryside, clearing fields of dead cows and goats. They soared over the cities in search of road kill and picked at the scattered refuse of the region’s ever-expanding populace. For a subcontinent where religious and cultural mores restrict the handling of the dead, human and animal alike—Muslims won’t eat an animal that hasn’t been killed according to halal; Hindus won’t consume cows under any circumstances—vultures were a natural and efficient disposal system. In Mumbai, they covered the Towers of Silence where Parsis, a small but ancient religious group that doesn’t believe in cremation or burial, lay out their dead for the vultures to consume in a ritual known as a “sky burial.” In Delhi, they flocked to the city dumpsites: one photograph in the archives of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), India’s largest and oldest wildlife conservation organization, captures six thousand vultures in a single frame; another shows two hundred vultures on one animal carcass.
But, today, India’s vultures are almost gone. Vibhu Prakash, principal scientist with BNHS, noticed the first nascent signs of a crisis nearly fifteen years ago. He had studied bird populations in Keoladeo National Park outside of Delhi in 1984, documenting 353 nesting pairs of vultures. When he returned in 1996, there were less than half those numbers.
“I saw a lot of empty nests, and when I started looking, there were dead birds everywhere—under the bushes and hanging from the trees, dead in the nests,” Prakash told me later. “I was quite worried.” By 1999, not one pair remained. BNHS put out an alert, and biologists from all over the country confirmed that the three dominant species of South Asian vultures—slender-billed (Gyps tenuerostris), white-backed (Gyps bengalensis), and long-billed (Gyps indicus)—were dying across the region.
White-backed vultures were once the most common raptor on the Indian subcontinent, so omnipresent that census figures were approximate at best. “There were so many it was hard to count them individually,” Prakash said. “We’d see hundreds flying and count them by the tens or in groups of fifty.” Scientists have estimated that, as recently as the 1980s, thirty million white-backed vultures once coasted on thermals above South Asia. Now there are eleven thousand.
By 2000, the World Conservation Union classified all three species as critically endangered, the highest risk category, and the Indian scientific community called out to their international colleagues to help identify the cause of the crash. Initial speculation centered on an infectious disease or bioaccumulation of pesticides, similar to the devastating effects of DDT on predatory birds a half-century earlier in Europe and North America. Rumor blamed Americans—”so technologically advanced,” the Indians like to quip—for producing some new chemical that was killing the vultures. (After the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, it’s hard to fault Indians for their suspicion.)