[Marxism] India's vanishing vultures

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 6 07:05:24 MDT 2011

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 

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.)

But it was an American, Lindsay Oaks, a microbiologist at 
Washington State University working in collaboration with the 
US-based Peregrine Fund, who finally isolated the cause of the 
collapse in April 2003 and published the results the following 
year in Nature. The three species of Gyps vultures were dying from 
ingesting livestock carcasses treated with diclofenac, a mild 
painkiller akin to aspirin or ibuprofen. After taking it 
themselves for decades, Indians began using it in the early 1990s 
to ease the aches of their farm animals’ cracked hooves and 
swollen udders. For reasons that remain unknown, vultures that 
feed on animals treated with diclofenac develop visceral 
gout—untreatable kidney failure that causes a crystallized bloom 
across their internal organs. Death occurs within weeks.


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