- Vultures and Their People in India:Equity and Entanglement in a Time of Extinctions
In conversations about vultures in India, people have often recounted to me having seen large numbers gathered along the banks of rivers, consuming the dead bodies of cattle and other animals, including sometimes people, as they float by or wash up on the water's edge. When a carcass meets a vulture's beak, it matters very little if this flesh, this meat, was once a human or some other kind of animal. In fact, numerous human societies throughout history—including present-day Parsee communities in India, and Buddhists in Tibet and elsewhere—utilise exposure to vultures as the most appropriate way of "taking care" of their dead (Schuz and Konig 1983; Subramanian 2008; van Dooren 2010). I am interested in the dynamics and practicalities of eating and being eaten in multispecies communities, but for the moment I would like to remain with the vultures on the banks on the Ganges and other rivers in India. Unlike most other scavengers, the vultures are "obligate" scavengers. This means that they do not opportunistically alternate between predation and scavenging (like their mammalian counterparts), but rather rely exclusively on finding animal carcasses. A vulture's whole body is oriented and adapted towards this method of food procurement and the lifestyle that accompanies it. In fact, Ruxton and Houston have even argued that it may have been in the developments of the large bodies and specialisations for efficient soaring flight—which are essential to being a successful avian scavenger—that vultures lost the flying accuracy, agility, and maneuverability necessary to kill prey (2004).
However it evolved, scavenging has been a very successful way of life for vultures for a long time. While the fossil record is poor, it seems that in the "Old World" vultures have been around for over 20 million years. The genus Gyps, to which the vast majority of the vultures in India belong, probably arrived on the scene sometime in the last few million years (Houston 2009; Rich 1983).
But while scavenging has been evolutionarily successful for vultures, it is arguably not the most attractive way of getting a meal. It seems fair to say that vultures are a little bit gross. The Gyps species that occur in India live [End Page 130]
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primarily in colonies, usually of twenty to thirty birds, but sometimes in excess of one hundred; they often roost as close as possible to dumps or slaughterhouses, build their nests in tall trees or on cliff ledges, and line their nests with wool, skin, dung, and rubbish (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001:422–428).
While many animals scavenge food when it is available, few have taken to scavenging with the focus and vigor of the vultures. According to Dean Amadon, few other scavengers "will compete with vultures for badly decomposed remains" (1983:ix). Inhabiting an environment in which food is often less than "fresh," it is no wonder that vultures possess a high level of resistance to various pathogens and diseases (Houston and Cooper 1975).1 According to Amadon, "it has been reported that vultures can, without ill effect, consume the viruses of such deadly pathogens as anthrax in such quantities as would fell an ox—or a whole heard of oxen" (1983:ix).
But something is now poisoning vultures and threatening to cause their extinction in India and throughout the surrounding region. Over the past two decades vultures have been dying en masse, largely as a result of their being unintentionally poisoned by a drug called diclofenac. Diclofenac is widely administered to cattle in India to treat inflammation and other conditions. When the cattle die, however, vultures...