‘When the vultures watching your civilization begin dropping dead…
it is time to pause and wonder.’ Kenneth Brower, 1979
It was the day after the release of the 2018 WWF Living Planet report. Its conclusion – that we had eradicated 60% of the planet’s wildlife since 1970 – was staggering. Journalists and commentators struggled to come up with a way to convey the scale of the loss. ‘It’s the equivalent of losing the human population of Europe, China, Oceania and the Americas and Africa,’ explained Tanya Steele, head of the WWF. But that just made it even harder to comprehend.
Radio 4 invited a response from scientist, academic and Labour peer Robert Winston. He argued, persuasively and intelligently, the case for GM foods, against food waste, for education, against enforced sterilisation and so on. Then the interviewer, Caroline Quinn, clearly angling for a ‘call to arms,’ prompted him: ‘But tens of thousands of species are threatened around the world … Now is the time to act isn’t it?’
‘It’s all very well to talk of tens of thousands of species,’ he said, ‘but one needs to look at the sort of species that might be dying out – and of course some of them are really important – but we’re not going to have a Noah’s ark where every single species is going to be preserved. I suspect you might agree with me there are quite a lot of insects that we don’t really need on the planet.’
To which, with a collegiate little laugh, Quinn conceded, ‘Yes, well, there are certainly a few that I’d like to see the back of.’
I wondered which species she would ‘like to see the back of’ – and what kind of world would be left for those human and non-humans who remained. What greater unravelling might then ensue?
‘It’s hard to get people to care about vultures,’ said Ryan Stevens, mournfully. ‘Owls? No problem. If you’re an owl, just sit on a stump and you get a round of applause. Poor old vultures have got to really jump through hoops.’
I was on a ‘Vulture Experience Day’ at the Hawk Conservancy Trust in Andover, and Ryan was putting the birds through their paces. They didn’t have to jump through hoops – just fly onto our gloved hands and extract bits of dead chick from our fists.
Tebenwick, the first bird we were to feed, is a Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura, sometimes also known as the ‘turkey buzzard’). ‘He’s a lovely bird, a real gent,’ Ryan said, regarding the bird’s beady black eyes, the red ridges of its caul, and the white-tipped hook of its beak, with a tenderness usually reserved for the young of one’s own species. It is one of the very few vultures – or indeed bird of any species – to have a keen sense of smell. The single nostril cavity is a neat, oval hole in its beak: if you peer closely, you can see clear through to the other side.
Next, Ryan goes to unleash Pike and Chips. ‘Squadron Leader’ Pike and his lifelong companion Chips are Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) – smaller than the Turkey vulture and with dark grey rather than bright red heads. ‘There’ll be absolute chaos,’ warns Ryan as he walks towards the enclosure, and although that is overstating the case, their eager, tumbling-running-flapping feeding style is very far from Tebenwick’s shy, stately manner.
Vultures are a diverse group of twenty-three species, divided into sixteen ‘old world’ and seven ‘new world’ species. Pike, Chips and Tebenwick are all new world vultures, found in the Americas. Old world species are to be found in Africa and across South Asia. In India, three species – Long-billed (Gyps indicus), Asian white-backed (Gyps bengalensis) and Slender-billed vultures (Gyps tenuirostris) – predominate.
Although they have a strong family resemblance, the two groups do not share a common ancestry. They are an example of ‘convergent evolution’ – the large body mass, featherless heads, hooked beaks, soaring flight patterns and so on are adaptations to the scavenging lifestyle of their particular biological niche. In fact, it has been argued that new world vultures are more closely related to storks than to their similar-looking old world cousins.
Old world vultures are ‘a bit more refined’, as Ryan put it, but both groups have developed a remarkably similar literal pecking order. Thom van Dooren refers to these as ‘scavenging guilds’. There are the ‘tearers’ like the king vulture (new world) and white-headed vulture (old) who have shorter necks and powerful narrow beaks ideal for tearing through tough skin and opening up a carcass. These are followed by ‘peckers’ – like Pike and Chips – who are smaller, with narrower skulls and pincer-like beaks and are often forced to hang around the edges of the carcass before they can come in to pick the bones clean. The third group, known as griffons in the old world and condors in the new, have long necks and sharp beaks that can reach into the viscera of a carcass and pull out the flesh from deep inside. These ‘pullers’ account for by far the largest proportion of vultures, as most scavenging requires this kind of feeding technique.
After feeding the vultures inside their enclosures, we were ready to graduate to the outside. Ryan led our group across an open patch of ground to a low rise. At the top was a tree stump topped with a slab of Astroturf. Following his instructions, I knelt down and rested my gloved hand on the stump. ‘Okay, I’m going to get the big bird out now,’ he said. The bird in question was an African white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus – an old worlder) called Clay. On the far side of the field, Ryan raised his arm and the bird took to the air. He wheeled around the side of the grassy bowl, skimming the tops of trees around the edge just, it seemed, for the pure pleasure of stroking the air with wide-spread primaries and soared down towards me, talons outstretched. White-backed vultures are not the largest, but they’re still pretty big – and the sight of Clay’s seven-foot wingspan as he came in to land set my heart racing.
Clay was a magnificent bird. At least fifty shades of grey, his feathers ranged from almost coal-black on the tips of his wings and tail, lighter feathers on his body and back like overlapping tiles of slate, up to a snow-white froth of feathers at the base of his long, curved neck. The tops of his legs and underbelly were dove-grey, as though he were wearing white breeches above the scaly limestone skin of his legs. His face was a dark, stormy grey, and his beak was short – almost snub – and sharply hooked: a classic ‘puller’. He landed with surprising gentleness on my fist, and extracted the meat from my tight clasp with a deft, almost casual nudge.
With her bright yellow face and bright white plumage, Boe, the Trust’s Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) was quite different. One of smaller birds, with the classic narrow beak and relatively short neck of a ‘pecker’, she sized us up with an inquisitive look in her startlingly intelligent black eyes. Extraordinary to think that these birds can cover more than 300 miles in a day, and fly up to 6,000 miles on their annual migration.
The Ancient Egyptians thought that all vultures were female. They reproduced by being impregnated by the wind. Couriers between the spirit realm and the world of the living, these liminal creatures were revered more than they were feared. They were aery beings, half-flesh and half-spirit, soaring so high in the sky that they seem to disappear into another world.
In western culture, vultures are most often viewed with disgust and disapproval. Feeding on animals that have been killed by others indicates a sort of low opportunism – thieving and scrounging, profiting from the misfortune of others. A shot of vultures circling is filmic shorthand for imminent death. They gather – so popular understanding goes – not only where something has died, but in anticipation that something (or someone) will. The classic bird of ill-omen, vultures were said to gather at battlefields well before the first shot had been fired or any blood shed, and were imbued by the Greeks and Romans with occult powers of foresight.
Vultures remind us that we are but ‘living carcasses’ – as Milton puts it. One day, we’ll be eaten too. The Parsi community in Mumbai lay out their dead in specially constructed high-walled fortifications known as dakhma. Poetically known as ‘towers of silence’, this is where the body is offered up to the birds and the elements, in a final act of generous selflessness. The similar practice of ‘excarnation’ – leaving the body exposed to be eaten by scavengers and eroded away by the elements – practiced in Tibet and Mongolia is known as ‘sky burial’.
Vultures are fantastically efficient cleaners. Carcasses that would otherwise become a breeding ground for disease are demolished and digested. Very little can survive the highly acidic environment of a vulture’s stomach – botulism, anthrax, rabies and a host of other diseases are simply stopped dead in their tracks. In Hindu mythology, the poison that rose up when the gods churned the ocean to get at the nectar of life was contained by Shiva in his throat which turned blue. The vultures perform a similar cleansing role – the poison stops at their crop.
The Latin name for the group of new world vultures is Cathartes – from the Greek word kathartes meaning ‘purifier’, from whence the word ‘catharsis’: to purge and purify. What’s in a name? It turns out rather a lot. How does our view of the common ‘turkey buzzard’ change when we realise its name, Cathartes aura, is actually ‘the golden purifier’? The strenuous efforts to pull the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) back from the brink of extinction were possible partly because of its name. ‘Condor’, like ‘eagle’, sounds rather noble – a lone, transcendent, iconic emblem of a bird, that proved far easier to rally support for than the lowly ‘vulture’. In 1982, the few remaining birds were captured, and a breeding programme led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service began. The bird was officially notified by the IUCN as ‘extinct in the wild’ in 1987. Since then, the tiny population of this, America’s largest land bird, has been slowly recovering, and now three breeding colonies exist in the wild and the total population has crept up to 463.
India was once home to the largest populations of vultures in the world, and has therefore been the site of this most catastrophic decline. In the last 20 years, its many tens of millions of vultures have been reduced to barely a few thousand. 99.7% of the population has been wiped out – the fastest, steepest and most dramatic decline of any animal in recorded history.
When I first visited India in the 1980s, vultures were ubiquitous. Common as mosquitoes, dotting the beige skies above Calcutta, fighting for space on the rubbish tips in Delhi, jostling for scraps with kites, crows and humans, thronging around the dakhmas in Mumbai. I came across an old black and white photo, belonging to Goutam Narayan, of a rubbish tip at Timarpur in north Delhi, covered in vultures, so closely packed that the ground disappears beneath them. They stand shoulder to shoulder, along the tops of buildings, like gangly ticketless youths craning their necks to watch a cricket match. It is impossible not to feel queasy and revolted by their sheer numbers. You can almost sense the stink.
Like the rag-pickers that eke out a meagre existence on the city’s waste grounds and landfills, the vultures are relegated to the lowliest position – tainted by association with the filth, dirt and waste matter that they live off (and, tragically, often live on). They are the untouchables of the avian world, like their human equivalents so often viewed as an undifferentiated mass, robbed of their dignity, their individuality. It has been suggested that in India, with the ascendance of right-wing Hinduism, the cow-devouring vulture has suffered by association with the beef-eating Muslim population.
Perhaps I’m stretching the metaphor too far, but there’s something about eagles and vultures that reminds me of vampires and zombies. They’re both flesh-eaters, but while vampires are elegant, singular, upper-class raptors, vultures are like the zombie hordes. Dealing with the dead, they become infected with death themselves. Perhaps this is where our existential horror of the birds stems from. They are – or were, rather – as common as insects, and as gross. Lord Winston would certainly have no place for them on his fantasy ark of ‘important’ handpicked species – the poor old, low-caste, brainless zombie-birds would be consigned to history as we stride forward into our engineered, prettified, and insect-free future.
I look at Narayan’s photo and marvel that such a sight was common in my own lifetime. That these birds were neighbours in the city where we lived. By the time I moved to India to live, in 1995, spotting a vulture was a rarity. When I left in 2015, they were non-existent.
The overwhelming reason for the vultures’ decline was the widespread use of a veterinary drug called diclofenac which was administered to cows as an anti-inflammatory. Like kryptonite to Superman, diclofenac was impervious to the corrosive powers of the vultures’ digestive juices and, once ingested, caused swift and fatal kidney failure. Although it is horrifying to hear about vultures being deliberately shot or poisoned, as they often are, there’s something even more heartbreaking when you realise their death is a side-effect of them doing what they have always done: feeding themselves and their young.
With vultures out of the loop, the populations of street dogs and rats increased, spurring a concomitant rise of rabies and other infectious diseases. Some estimates put the economic cost of the loss of India’s vultures at $34 billion – though I have no idea how the number was arrived at and wonder how meaningful it really is. Popular Indian YouTuber Raghav Mandava notes that although the drug was banned in 2006 (just three years after it had been positively isolated as the main cause of the crisis), it is still widely available because ‘hey, this is India, bro.’ It is not just a question of corruption, it is a question of cost: diclofenac being many times cheaper than its nearest, vulture-safe equivalent, most Indian farmers simply cannot afford the alternative. Mandava ends his video on a sombre note: ‘Quite frankly, it is stuff like this that makes me sceptical about having children of my own. Because if I cannot promise them a future not filled with rabies, anthrax … I don’t think it’s worth it.’
The sheer scale of the loss ‘simply overwhelms our capacity for understanding,’ Thom van Dooren writes in his book, Flight Ways. He sees extinction not, as it is commonly viewed, as a single event – where the last living member of that species dies, but as the ‘distinct unravelling of ways of life’. He moves beyond simple descriptions of ‘biodiversity’ but looks instead at ‘multispecies entanglements’ – with humans as just one of the threads in the tapestry. What happens when a tapestry that took millions of years to create begins to fray at the edges – and what does it mean that we are unstitching ourselves from other creatures, disentangling ourselves from those to whom we have been historically bound? We are living through those unprecedented questions now.
I loved the vultures I met at the Hawk Conservancy Trust – shy Tebenwick; the bolshy pair, Pike and Chips; the thirty-five-year-old Cinereous vulture, Dolores, who stalked around her enclosure like a regal grandmere with creaky knees; Clay, the great African white-backed, who left a feather for me as he flew away, a talisman from a creature half-celestial, half-bestial, wholly astonishing. But equally – in fact more so – I mourned the passing of a world in which their presence was uncurated, their names unknown, their wingbeats wild and free. I am profoundly depressed by the idea that these creatures – in fact, all creatures – will only be allowed to live ‘by our leave’. At our absolute best, we can now aspire only to the kind of half-cocked Noah’s ark, where only those we deem worthy of saving earn their place on ‘our’ planet, leaving the rest to flounder and die as the waters rise. And even then, the modern-day ark would be rather different from Noah’s: instead of a cargo of living creatures, we would have storage jars of frozen seeds and neatly catalogued slivers of DNA, ready to regrow a world once we’ve bled this one dry. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
The fact is, we’re all going down. The tapestry is unravelling, and each dropped stitch threatens the whole.
I agree with Raghav Mandava: I don’t want to bequeath a world overrun with anthrax, rabies and rats. But more than that, I want a world with wild vultures in it. In his remark on the expendability of certain insects, Lord Winston articulated a view of the world that is quite common: that we can have nature without nasties, gardens with ladybirds but no aphids, butterflies with no caterpillars, cabbages with no slugs, grass with no moss, trees with no fungus, compost with no worms, fruit with no flies, life with no death, consumption with no waste, eat with no shit, fit with no sweat, fuck with no heartache, birth with no pain, and death with no knowledge – death so muffled in denial and medication and false hope that, to all intents and purposes, it no longer exists at all.
The loss of the world’s vultures is not only heartbreaking, it is soul-destroying. These awesome, powerful, spirit-birds remind us of the gift of mortality: that we are transient beings, our bodies not owned but lent for a while, before being transformed into other living beings – ingested, digested, reborn in new forms over and over again. For me, the phoenix is no mythical bird: it is a vulture, pure and simple, arising from our ashes.
Readers wishing to support vulture conservation efforts can donate to S.A.V.E, Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction, here.