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India’s Vanishing Vultures

(Original article by Meera Subramanian, at the Virginia Quarterly Review...)

"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... Just fifteen years ago, there were at least fifty million vultures on the Indian subcontinent; today, according to Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, less than sixty thousand individuals of the three species survive in the wild—and a newly-completed Indian-sponsored census, the first in three years, is yielding even more distressing results. the vanishing of India’s vultures now presents a still greater challenge... India must find a way to restore its prime scavenger or risk untold human health consequences. Vultures once rid the landscape of diseases such as tuberculosis, brucellosis, and foot-and-mouth. Their strong stomach acids and high body temperatures allow them to ingest an anthrax-infected carcass and suffer no ill effects. The fear is that with vultures gone, and the human handling of dead livestock increasing, that these diseases could spread among both animal and human populations..."

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