India’s Vanishing Vultures

Meera Subramanian

Can the world’s fastest growing nation restore its prime scavenger before there are untold human consequences?

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.

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