Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

India's Vulture Void

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

India's Vulture Void

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "India's Vanishing Vultures" by Meera Subramanian, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2011.

IT'S NOT EASY TO MUSTER EMPATHY for eaters of the dead. But in India, a precipitous drop in the native vulture population, from 50 million in the mid-1990s to fewer than 60,000 today, has created an environmental and cultural catastrophe. Gone are the creatures that once "scoured the countryside, clearing fields of dead cows and goats," writes Meera Subramanian, a widely published journalist who is also an editor of the online literary magazine Killing the Buddha. And while other animals, notably wild dogs, have taken over some of the carrion-eating on land, no scavengers can fill the role vultures once performed for the Parsis, the small, ancient religious sect who give their dead "sky burials" in sacred "Towers of Silence." The massive vultures, their wingspans sometimes reaching eight feet, used to consume the bodies left on open-air scaffolds in a matter of days, but now it can take months for the Parsi dead to decompose.

American microbiologist Lindsay Oaks finally pinpointed the cause of the vultures' demise in 2003: diclofenac, a painkiller given to farm animals for discomfort from cracked hooves. Vultures gorging on animals treated with diclofenac suffered massive kidney failure. The government banned the substance in 2005, but Subramanian says the law is toothless.

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The three prominent species of indigenous vultures, all from the Gyps genus, were once able to consume cattle infected with tuberculosis, brucellosis, foot-and-mouth disease, and anthrax with no ill effects. But with the birds gone, humans now must dispose of such animals themselves, Subramanian writes. The fear is that "these diseases could spread among both animal and human populations."

Attempts to rebuild the vulture population, chiefly at the Pinjore Vulture Conservation Breeding Center north of Delhi, have met with limited success. …

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