Once upon a recent time, in a land not-so-far away, thousands of broad-winged creatures called vultures circled the sky, searching the ground for scattered waste. In this land lived a little girl named Tithli. Little Tithli was an unusual girl. She had a big hooked nose and an astonishing sense of smell. She could catch a whiff of one rotting potato in ten gunny bags. All the other kids at school teased her about her nose and called her Giddh’li. Giddh is vulture in Hindi.
Tithli did not mind. She liked vultures.
In her land, vultures were considered harbingers of death and doom. Some even trapped and killed them simply because they looked repulsive with their bare, featherless heads, and sharp, hooked beaks. Everybody instinctively looked away in disgust as these uncharismatic beasts soared above, casting a great shadow on the ground.
But not Tithli. She thought they looked striking. She marvelled at their large wings that perfectly hugged the sky, as they effortlessly hovered on spirals of hot air.
Tithli lived on a dairy farm with her family in the countryside. They had a lot of cows on their farm. With religious and caste taboos in handling dead cows, the carcasses of dead livestock were disposed of in open spaces in the countryside. Tithli’s astounding sense of smell meant she could sniff out the carcasses from miles away. She thought the stench would make the people of her land sick, but no one ever complained. They did not have Tithli’s extraordinary olfactory abilities. But decomposition of animal carrion was inevitable. Tithli anticipated the stench to get nauseating with time. She was wrong. There was never a whiff of the dead in the air.
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Filled with innate curiosity, one day she hopped on her bicycle and rode all the way to the edge of the countryside where the cows were laid to rest. There was no sign of rotting flesh. Heaps of large clean bones were strewn across the open space. Perhaps the remains of the cow don’t decompose. Perhaps they magically disappear into thin air. Tithli wondered as her thoughts drifted to the thousands of vultures circling above like a huge dark cloud.
Her imagination fuelled by intense curiosity was soaring. She wanted to see the bovine rise towards heaven, shred by shred, like dandelion seeds effortlessly floating in the air with a puff of breath. She followed the next cow carcass that was taken to the open space. The poor lifeless mammal was dumped amongst the congregation of buzzing flies and atop the skeletal remains of other bovines.
Tithli eagerly waited for it all to unfold. All of a sudden, dark shadow engulfed the land and an army of vultures descended upon the exposed carcass. What ensued was nothing short of magic. Thrusting their long necks into the carcass and tearing off flesh with their heavy beaks, the large dead mammal was stripped down to the bone in under half an hour. One vulture pulled its head out of the dead mammal and turned its face towards Tithli, covered in blood and guts. Little Tithli did not look away. She was oddly mesmerised by the speed and efficiency with which the vultures consumed the huge corpse.
Tithli’s admiration for the gangly creatures soon turned into passion. She would spend hours studying vultures as they casually hunched by the roadside with faces buried in the carcass of some unfortunate small animal. Sneering passersby often shooed away the ‘filthy scavengers’, much to her despair.
All those hours spent in the company of scavengers taught her a thing or two about the behaviour of vultures. She noticed that most scavenging birds and dogs messily scattered remains on the ground while devouring carcasses. The putrefying remains, apart from stinking up roadsides and landfills, also increased the risk of disease. Vultures, on the other hand, wholly consumed the carcass often in places where the dead laid, thereby preventing the risk of diseases and the waft of decomposing flesh. What’s more, she realised that vultures could even digest rotting cadavers teeming with bacteria without any ill effects to their own health. With stomachs as strong as theirs, these gentle giants were invincible and dotted the sky in abundance.
Surely, they must be laying a nest full of eggs. Curious Tithli tracked down a vulture’s nest precariously located on a small cliff overlooking the fields. A lone vulture sat there incubating one egg in an enormous nest that could easily accommodate two fully grown cows. She later learnt that vultures lay only one egg per year. Yet, these slow breeders were ubiquitous and, ironically, few people paid them serious attention.
Tithli wished people treated vultures with the respect they deserved. Little did she know that her wish would soon come true, albeit in a rather unpleasant manner.
Fast forward to a couple of years later. The smell wafts from roadsides, open spaces and landfills. It’s the stench of rotting flesh. Tithli, with one hand tightly placed over her nose, is standing near a fresh livestock carcass amidst mounds of decomposing remains being gnawed at by dogs and rats. Her deep forehead furrows are apparent. Something is amiss. The vultures are not dining out on the dead livestock. In fact, none can be seen in the vicinity.
As a worried Tithli gets ready to leave, two vultures descend on the carcass only to be driven away by the new foraging rulers of the land, feral dogs. The wild canines turn to her with a hostile growl and send her running off with a scream. Unlike vultures, these new reigning scavengers have a reputation of attacking humans – ask the boy in her school who has two puncture marks on his knee and is still visiting the clinic for rabies shots.
Vultures, it seems, have practically vanished from the skies, the cliffs and the open spaces. Tithli had noticed their declining numbers, but who would have taken heed to the words of an unusual young girl like her – not when there were plenty of vultures still scavenging around.
This sudden and dramatic exit of the vultures created a vacuum and hundreds of carcasses were left rotting increasing the incidence of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, anthrax etc. In the absence of vultures, the population of feral dogs and rats boomed and so did the threat of rabies among humans.
The world soon took notice of the mysterious vulture crash and the international science community stepped in to identify the cause. There are many factors that can contribute to the loss of an avian population – habitat destruction, poaching, disease- but the speed and scale of vulture collapse baffled the brightest of minds. It was like the sky opened its mouth and swallowed them up.
Meanwhile, the people of Tithli’s land, although a tad bit late, are now starting to take a keen interest in vultures. They want to know more about these creatures and ask Tithli to share her knowledge and observations. While Tithli loves to talk about her favourite bird, their current predicament makes her well up with tears as she sniffles and mumbles on about these natural cleaners of the planet. If only she could help bring them back from the brink.
The year is 2003, the puzzle of this mysterious vulture die-off is finally solved. Tithli first hears it on the radio – poisoning. She knew it! Wretched humans had poisoned the poor creatures to extinction. Tithli is furious. She fights back tears of disgust and continues to listen to the broadcast. The culprit it seems is diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug commonly given to livestock as an effective pain-killer. After consuming the carcass of animals recently treated with diclofenac, the vultures would fall sick and collapse within a few days. The drug caused severe kidney failure in these birds.
Basically, humans were unintentionally poisoning the vultures.
Tithli takes it upon herself to spread awareness about the vulture-killing drug and goes farm to farm sharing the newly discovered findings. She makes hand-written pamphlets with a big red cross over the word diclofenac.
Tithli: Excuse me, Mr. X do you give painkillers to your livestock?
Mr. X: Why yes, I sure do.
Tithli: Would it happen to be diclofenac?
Mr. X: Yes, that’s the most effective one. Knocks that fever right off their hooves.
Tithli: The drug is also knocking off vultures right off this Earth. Do you know the importance of vultures? They provide a lot of ecosystem services.
Mr. X: Cows are the source of my livelihood, not vultures. How should I treat my livestock if they fall sick? Give me an alternative as effective and cheap as diclofenac and I will consider giving up the drug.
That pretty much sums up most of her visits, which ends with a question that Tithli doesn’t have an answer to. It takes a while for the studies to identify a vulture-safe alternative. Until then, Tithli continues knocking on farm doors with her pamphlets.
The use of diclofenac in livestock finally starts to reduce after a manufacturing ban is imposed three years later in 2006. The vulture numbers, however, continue to fall steadily.
Tithli now has a younger brother, who is all of six years old. He refuses to believe that a majestic creature called the vulture once lived next to his people and freely roamed the skies in large numbers. Tithli’s stories of its recent omnipresence is nothing more than a fable to him.
A rapid population decline of three resident species of vultures, namely the long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus), slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) and oriental white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis) across India was first reported in the late 1990s. Between 1992 and 2007, the population of long-billed vulture and slender-billed vulture had crashed by a shocking 97%, while the decline in oriental white-backed vulture was even more devastating at 99.%.
These species of vultures are still a critically endangered population and their story is a reminder that our ecosystems are fragile and interconnected. The loss of even one species can trigger catastrophic losses in wider ecosystem. According to a study by Association for Prevention and Control of Rabies in India, the decline in vulture population and the subsequent increase in feral dogs have partially led to rabies outbreak in India. The outbreak is estimated to have caused deaths of over 47,395 humans in the period 1992- 2006.
Aditi Pradhan is a birder and film production consultant from Mumbai.
Featured image: Reuters/Radu Sigheti