This episode tells the story of the near-extinction of Asian vultures.
In the mid-nineties, millions of vultures began to die, all across the Asian subcontinent. Scientists scrambled to find the cause and to save the remaining birds.
I talked to Chris Bowden of SAVE (Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction) about this remarkable conservation effort, as well as the underappreciated value and beauty of these magnificent birds.
Photo Credit: Oriental White-Backed Vulture by Nikita Prakash
Wednesday Addams once said. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSho6btj40c
Acid, Poop and Barf: Vultures' secret weapons. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieBhJlCxnt8
House of the Dragons, HBO Max. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DotnJ7tTA34
Why I Love Vultures (Munir Virani). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhyzTTaMN7E
Nature Magic podcast (featuring Eanna Ni Lamhna). https://www.naturemagic.ie/podcast/episode/7a0e9d79/episode-56-eanna-ni-lamhna-is-passionate-about-our-wild-world
Ray Of Hope by JayJen | https://soundcloud.com/jayjenmusic
Music promoted by https://www.free-stock-music.com
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HOST (voiceover): Hello, and welcome back to the Animal Friendly podcast.
In this episode, we’re going to talk about an amazing story of dedication and perseverance in the face of a modern-day near-extinction event. It’s a conservation story but also has elements of thriller, detective and possibly slightly horror as well, depending on your point of view. Because today we’re talking about vultures.
CLIP “Still not as creepy as your stuffed unicorn collection.”
Yes, I think we can safely assume that Wednesday Addams would be a fan of vultures but I’m willing to bet that by the end of this episode you will be too.
Thirty years ago, the Indian sub-continent was home to an estimated 40 million vultures. Oriental white-backed vultures, long-billed and slender-billed vultures were a vibrant part of the landscape. Old photographs show many thousands of these birds gathered together in lively communities, both in rural and urban settings.
Then, in the mid-nineties, Asian vultures began to die in vast, almost unimaginable, numbers.
In the space of fifteen years, about forty million vultures died. If we wanted to break that down – to try and get our heads around the number - it would be about 5,000 birds dying a day – every day – for fifteen years.
And no one knew why it was happening.
CHRIS: No, it was such an extraordinary and dramatic decline. I mean, I don't think there's ever been quite such a sudden decline of species that were so numerous and so drastically reduced in such a short time as the Asian vultures. And yes, it was just unprecedented from, literally, tens of millions of vultures in India alone, suddenly to, you know, 97% and even, well, for one of the species, the most numerous species, it's 99.9% have gone, just in, like, less than 15 years. So, just extraordinary and absolute extinction trajectories of these species which, you know, were keystone species, you know, in the environment.
HOST (voiceover): In this episode I talk to Chris Bowden about how these birds were brought to the very edge of extinction, the desperate investigations for the cause of the fatalities, and the remarkable cooperative efforts that were made – and are continuing – in order to save Asia’s vultures.
CHRIS: My name's Chris Bowden, I work for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I'm an ecologist by training and always worked in bird conservation all of my thirty-something years and almost all of that would be RSPB, on endangered species, critically endangered species in Africa, Asia and briefly in the Caribbean, so, a mix of different programmes but always on birds and always birds in trouble. The last nearly twenty years has been all about Asian vultures. I also co-chair the IUCN vulture specialist group but most importantly I do my best to coordinate this consortium called Saving Asia's Vulture's from Extinction and getting twenty-five partners working together to do what's really needed to save the vultures.
HOST: So, do you remember the first time, do you remember the first time you heard that these were in trouble, or when you found out this was happening...
CHRIS: I do, yes. Well, I very first heard about the problem in the late 1990s from colleagues who were trying to unravel what was actually happening with the vultures, so, ah, yes, it was such a big thing, the dramatic declines in India and south Asia. Yes, and then the hunt was on really, to try and find out what was causing the problem, and my RSPB colleagues were helping Bombay Natural History Society and Bird Conservation Nepal colleagues to try and find out what that problem was. And, yes, so I was following it with interest but it was when that became clear, that...and what really needed doing that I was called in, actually from other programmes, to coordinate a response, and on behalf of RSPB but also BirdLife partners and others working on the problem.
HOST (voiceover): So, scientists around the world had realised that the Asian vultures were dying in vast numbers but they didn’t yet know why…
CHRIS: There was a team of scientists who were really closely involved, both from RSPB, from, the Bombay Natural History Society and Bird Conservation Nepal, as well as another team in - and that was in India and Nepal - in Pakistan there was a Peregrine Fund team working with partners in Pakistan, all desperately trying to find out what the problem was and, it really was a big mystery where...and lots of ideas about what it might have been causing the problem, but it proved to be - and actually was first discovered in Pakistan - Lindsey Oaks there led a team and they unravelled the fact that this veterinary drug that had suddenly become very popular as a painkiller and an anti-inflammatory drug, called diclofenac. That was unfortunately causing kidney failure and death in the vultures that fed on cattle carcasses which had been recently treated with that apparently harmless drug which is, you know, it's actually relatively harmless for cattle and humans but lethal in the vultures. So that was what was causing the problem. Many of those cattle, particularly in India, are not consumed by humans and get disposed of in carcass dumps or outside the cities, and there the vultures perform this really important role of cleaning up all these rotting carcasses. And cattle were the main food, of course the vultures will eat any dead animals and, clean up all sorts of other animals as well. But cattle were the main food and that's why a drug that's been used in those cattle that's toxic to the vultures, you know, just wiped out the population so quickly. And 2003, the end of 2003, that became clear that that was the problem and then I was brought in to help coordinate the response to that in 2004 and I've been working ever since to try and implement the actions that are needed to respond to that finding and that main threat to the vultures.
HOST (voiceover): One of the reasons this tragedy is so particularly poignant is that vulture stomachs are notoriously impervious to germs and bacteria that knock out the rest of us. Dead meat is a playground for pathogens such as cholera and anthrax. Other animals like dogs and rats can ingest the meat but then they carry the diseases into human communities, whereas vulture stomachs are literally a ‘dead end’ for germs.
CLIP: “Have you ever been digging around in your fridge late at night looking for a snack and come upon some leftovers in the back, wondering if maybe too much time has passed, but you go for it anyway because you’re hungry and lazy and cheap…but then by the next morning you’re all moaning and groaning and really regretting that decision to eat the slightly fuzzy burrito.
You know who doesn’t have that problem? Vultures.
The world’s twenty-three species of vultures have evolved the ultimate freegan palate. They pretty much eat exclusively dead things with the help of their amazing digestive systems. The stomach breaks down food using gastric juices comprised mainly of hydrochloric acid to dissolve bonds in protein molecules and digestive enzymes that continue the dismantling process.
A festering carcass, as you might imagine, is a dirty place. It may still house whatever viruses, parasites and diseases killed the thing in the first place. That’s why the birds’ super strong acid cocktail is a whiz at killing a whole mess of pathogens that would be lethal to lesser scavengers. From salmonella and cholera to anthrax, botulism; even rabies.
HOST (voiceover): So vultures can safely consume a whole raft of dangerous pathogens but it is man-made compounds – the non-steroidal anti-inflammatories - which turned out to be vulture kryptonite.
HOST: So, once you guys found out that this is what it is, you realised the magnitude of the problem that you were facing, because it just was being used all across the countries…
CHRIS: One thing that nobody could really believe was quite the scale on which this drug was being used by the veterinarians and the farmers, and we found, actually, that 11% of dead cattle that were found in these carcass dumps had got diclofenac in their tissues, and that's even more surprising when you realise that diclofenac passes through the cow in just three or four days. So that means that 11% of cattle were dying less than 4 or 5 days after they'd been treated and still had the drug in their tissues sufficient to actually kill the vultures that would feed on those dead animals. So, yes, I think it was surprising even to the veterinarians and, well, to all concerned really. Just how widespread that use had quite suddenly become. Because it was only adopted in veterinary practice in the early nineteen-nineties. But, yes, so the next step was to work out how to replace it, and to look for a safe alternative drug that could be substituted. And there we had a very good bit of luck in that, quite quickly, we were able to identify through safety testing on vultures, one safe alternative drug called meloxicam, which was, you know, a viable alternative for the vets and relatively affordable. I mean, the price has come down a bit since then - it was initially a little bit more expensive - but that as a substitute, and trying to then get the vets to accept that, and on the back of that we could, persuade the governments to ban the offending drug, the diclofenac, from veterinary use across India, Nepal, Pakistan quite quickly, and later on Bangladesh, Cambodia, Iran and one or two other countries have actually banned it as a veterinary drug. But that's taken a bit of time and it's not quite as simple as that either. Incidentally, just to mention it, meloxicam is the safe drug and just two years ago, we identified a second safe drug called tolfenamic acid. So we've got two safe drugs for the vets to choose from but we had to persuade them to stop using diclofenac.
So once we realised what the problem was, there were two main priorities. One was we realised we weren't going to be able to remove the drug very quickly, so we needed a captive breeding program, a conservation breeding program as quickly as possible, before all the remaining vultures had gone. So that was very urgent, to establish captive breeding centres, but of course, the key need was to remove diclofenac from veterinary use and get bans in place and to get those bans effective.
And, although the South Asian countries were very quick to respond - great credit to them -for, within two years, those legislative bans were in place for India, Nepal and Pakistan. But, unfortunately, veterinary diclofenac and human diclofenac are the same thing so although veterinary diclofenac was banned, irresponsible veterinarians could still go and buy human diclofenac and illegally use it. And unfortunately, that has been happening. But, most of them are beginning to switch to meloxicam and tolfenamic acid as safe alternatives…well, I say most of them, some of them are; but unfortunately it's even more complicated than that because there are another six or seven similar non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which are also being picked up and used by the veterinarians for the same purpose, in the cattle, and some of those are also toxic and the Indian Veterinary Research Institute and Bombay Natural History Society, with support of other partners have been doing safety testing to establish the safety of these other drugs and we now know there are at least three - that's ketoprofen, nimesulide and aceclofenac - which are also toxic and we desperately need those to be banned, unfortunately. So it's a bit of a headache for the governments to keep banning these other drugs but when there are safe alternatives, it really is a viable option. So six countries - that's India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar – you know, range country partners but also international NGOs and universities and other researchers, all pulling their weight in trying to address the main problem of removing these veterinary drugs, but also making sure we don't neglect any other threats that are coming up. But it still remains as those drugs as being the top agenda item for getting them removed.
HOST (voiceover): There’s a chart on the SAVE website of the different milestones that were reached and it really shows the painstaking years of scientific and diplomatic work that were necessary to try and eliminate the threat, once that threat was identified.
They had to get vets to stop using diclofenac; they had to persuade governments to ban diclofenac and they had to identify substitutes.
At the same time conservation breeding programmes were initiated to ensure there would be some birds left if all the wild vulture populations became extinct.
One entry on the milestone chart reads: Captive vulture status in November 2008 was 98 oriental white-backed, 32 slender-billed and 54 long-billed.
It’s important to realise that breeding vultures is a slow process – vultures don’t mature until they are about 5 years old and they lay only one egg a year. The conservation breeding teams use natural and artificial incubation methods to raise chicks.
Another milestone from 2014 reads: Second generation captive vulture offspring produced at Pinjore and another record year produces 35 fledged in Indian centres.
Totals further boosted by artificial incubation inducing some double-clutching.
Nepal produces first fledgling at breeding centre.
Despite the technical language, you can still feel the emotion, the weight of the hopes and fears that must have accompanied each new chick.
Vultures don’t have a great reputation, usually being portrayed as sinister and predatory. How many times have we heard something like this?
CLIP: “You might as well peddle me for what you can, a mountain stronghold or a fleet of ships." "You have misjudged me Rhaenyra." "We all know it. Jason Lannister knows it. You’ve said it yourself, the lords of the realm gather like vultures to a carcass, hoping to feast on my bones.”
HOST (voiceover): House of the Dragon? Pffh, give me House of the Vulture any day.
Munir Virani has a TED talk called Why I Love Vultures and he also refers to vultures being compared to politicians - MPs in this case - and says it’s very unfair…to the vultures.
CLIP: “Because MPs do not keep the environment clean. MPs do not help to prevent the spread of diseases. They are hardly monogamous. [laughter and clapping] They are far from being extinct. And my favourite…is vultures are better looking. [laughter and clapping].
HOST (voiceover): I asked Chris about the difficulties of trying to rally support for a bird with a tarnished reputation, a bird that has been slandered through no fault of its own.
CHRIS: It is a real challenge, the image that vultures have and even, you know, right across the board, that is a problem I think. But, the more you learn about vultures and their extraordinary sense of eyesight and how they are very social - they're very intelligent birds actually as well, they're very observant, they pick up on different human behaviours. In the breeding centres we find that, you know, just small changes of staff and the vultures understand that there's something different and they're suspicious. They're very wary. Often they will refuse to feed for up to a week at a time, just because they're not confident of what's going on. So, all sorts of ways in which vultures are, yeah, as well as being magnificent flyers and long-distance movements to go and find their food. But winning more friends is something that we need to do and more awareness work is really important for getting the political will to actually take action. So the more we can publicise...and for example, every September we have the International Vulture Awareness Day and events all over the world actually, to celebrate and highlight the importance of vultures.
HOST: Do they, ahm, do they only eat dead meat? Do they actually go after rabbits or rats or anything...or do they just eat dead meat?
CHRIS: Basically, vultures are completely obligate scavengers. They just eat dead animals, they only eat meat, they don't eat anything else, but they're completely dependent on already dead animals. There have been very occasional cases where…when they've got very hungry, they may attack a sort of, a weak, already injured animal, but it really is very, very unusual. And unfortunately, those very rare cases end up getting publicity and further tainting the reputation of vultures in some cases. But it's very, very unusual, and basically, they are just scavengers.
HOST (voiceover): So Mark Twain was clever and astute – as usual – when he described vultures as: The very look of a professional assassin, and yet a bird which does no murder.
HOST: That's an unusual evolution, isn't it, to have a creature that just cleans up other...I mean, what a wonderful evolution...
CHRIS: It is an extraordinary, yes, evolutionary role and…but interestingly, vultures have evolved to perform that role independently in the New World, in the Americas, and in the Old World, the Africa, Eurasia. So we've got quite unrelated birds which are all called vultures but yes, so that role is clearly an important one which has evolved independently in different parts of the world. And of course, you know, even in Britain, everyone knows what a vulture is, even though we don't have vultures in Britain. It’s…they have got a lot of appeal, and, yeah, they attract interest I think from people, understandably, because they are so specialised and, yes, sort of watching them come to a carcass is quite fascinating. I've been able to watch that on a number of occasions, and, they...well, as I said earlier, they are often so cautious to approach a dead animal that they won't go until they're really sure that (a) that it's dead, but also that it's safe and...so they're all sort of waiting for each other. And then once they decide that it really is safe, they will completely clean up a whole cattle carcass in, literally, twenty minutes. It's gone, I mean, that's a huge amount of meat disposed of very, very quickly. So, yeah, all pretty fascinating stuff and, uhm, of course that association with death is part of the reason they, you know, they've got a mixed image and understandably I suppose, but ...
HOST: I've done a bit of bird rescue here, ahm, with swans and seagulls, and they have different temperaments. Swans…people are afraid of swans but they're actually quite placid - unless there's a cygnet involved - when you're trying to wrap their wings or whatever, whereas a seagull will take your head off...so when you're working with vultures, would they tend to more aggressive, or, as you say, shy, nervous...?
CHRIS: Ya, that's a nice question. So, handling vultures is not for the faint-hearted, because they are very strong and…yes their legs and feet are...you know, they can scratch you, but it's the bill that you really have to worry about. And that is pretty dangerous and designed obviously for ripping open flesh so you have to be pretty careful handling them. And, ya, I wouldn't say that they're…no, you would never describe them as placid. And they're big, they're big animals too. I mean, you know, holding a long-billed or slender-billed vulture, for a full-grown adult, yeah, it's a real handful and uhm, it's easier to work as a team, you know, in pairs or whatever, if you're ringing them or uhm, taking blood samples to try and help them.
But that's, you know, it's all quite doable but you need experienced people and, well, one of the things that we are now doing more of is putting satellite trackers on the birds and, getting the harness design correct, so that the bird is unaffected, or as unaffected as possible by carrying a small device on its back, is really important. So we've been training people in harnessing technique recently and we are putting these trackers on and partly, it's a very good way of getting unbiased information on...not only where the birds go but if they die, for any reason, to find out why they've died. Because it's such a difficult...it may sound, you know, we all find dead birds but you tend to find them in different situations, whereas if you've got a tracked bird, you know that you'll find it, and you will find it whether it's died of one cause or another. So we're actually pushing and promoting the idea of doing a lot more tracking to try and really understand what the remaining birds - where they go, but most importantly, what they die of - if they do die - and then we can really understand what the threats are, as a result of that, and where it's safe to release some of the captive birds. Because at the moment we're very worried that many of the areas in India are not safe enough, that we haven't got those drugs fully under control and we need to be sure of that before we release these precious birds back to the wild. So all of that is a really important and slightly sort of new direction for the work that's coming up over the next two or three years.
HOST (voiceover): The group has worked on establishing Vulture Safe Zones. These are areas of 100km radius centred around existing breeding colonies and to be declared safe they have to fulfil a number of criteria – like no diclofenac residues found in a set number of cattle liver samples, or no dead vultures found with symptoms of diclofenac poisoning. These are also areas where captive-bred birds can be released.
Chris talked there about the use of trackers. This idea emerged because it was proving very difficult to find and retrieve vulture carcasses to determine how they died. If they can fit birds with GPS trackers, they’ll be able to retrieve and post-mortem any dead birds and build up a database of mortality and causes.
HOST: So, I know you have established some safe...Vulture Safe Zones. And I was sort of wondering, how do you keep the vultures within them, or how big are they or how do you stop a vulture from going where it wants to go…
CHRIS: Okay, so Vulture Safe Zones...yes, we need these national scale bans of these drugs to try and make the whole region safe enough, but having a Vulture Safe Zone is something on a more local scale that we can focus some of those efforts and some of the awareness work and reach all the vets in an area. But although they're relatively smaller areas, they're still huge areas, because these birds travel forty, fifty, sixty kilometres a day to feed, routinely. So, actually, we've defined them as being 100 kilometres radius areas, which doesn't sound so huge but actually when you work that out, it's still massive areas. And trying to get those areas safe...no, we certainly can't stop the birds from going further and sometimes they do but most of the movements of birds are within that kind of range. Ya, it's really...Vulture Safe Zone concept is something that we see as something that people can actually grasp and tackle because otherwise it's just such a huge and widespread problem that you don't really know where to start except with the range state governments to get these bounds in place. So, ya, it's a local, relatively smaller scale action that we can do. And, interestingly, this approach...although we've developed it for overcoming the threat of these veterinary drugs here in Asia, the approach is being adapted more widely in Africa now as well. But it's different there because we've got different threats in Africa; we’ve got belief-based use, and we’ve got poisoned baits, where people are trying to poison dogs or other carnivores and accidentally kill vultures...anyway, the threats are different there so the Vulture Safe Zones need to reflect that in different activities being prioritised compared to the Asian Vulture Safe Zones that we've pioneered, particularly from Nepal but across the south Asian countries now.
On the ground, there are these Vulture Safe Zone initiatives with teams of in-country people working, particularly focusing on trying to get the veterinarians on-side and convinced to switch the drugs they're using on the cattle. But, yes, there is other outreach work and often it's the rural communities who are far more responsive and receptive to the fact that, you know, the role…important role that vultures used to play, and they recognise that they've gone, or they've largely disappeared and are worried about it. So we do get a lot of interest and particularly when you realise the role that they play in the environment in cleaning up more than ten thousand tons of rotting meat a year, in India alone, we know that from the numbers that were here. To…I mean in some ways, that role has almost gone because the reductions have been so severe and we're just left with less than 1% of the birds left, and, trying to make sure that those don't go extinct themselves. So that's the reality of it.
HOST (voiceover): By the way, if you’re maybe thinking it’s a bit gross that cattle carcasses are left at dumps and vultures pick over the bones, do remember that in other countries, cow and pig carcasses are sent to rendering plants. And here they get boiled up and the fat is skimmed off the top and, among other things, it’s used to make cosmetics – like moisturiser or lip balm. So unless you’re using vegan cosmetics you may well have more dead animals on your face than a vulture does. Anyway…
CHRIS: And, I mean, one of the consequences has been that, with so many vultures disappearing, there's a lot more rotting meat available and the feral dog population has probably benefitted from that. And we've got quite good evidence of up to 30% increase in dog numbers, responding to the fact that, you know, there aren't the vultures there. And feral dogs still transmit diseases and bite people of course, but rabies in particular, and there are still 7,000 cases of rabies in humans in India every year. There's a very real human health knock-on impact which, ah, we can relate back to vultures, but of course that is quite…there's a few steps in that chain but it is pretty clear that that's what's happened. So, human health and environmental impact of losing vultures has been really important and quite drastic too.
HOST (voiceover): One estimate of the financial cost of the vulture decline is 34 billion dollars for the 13 years up to 2006. That’s $2.6 billion a year…money lost through medical treatment costs, loss of life and lost income.
On top of that there’s increased costs to cattle owners who used to be able to leave carcasses on the dumps before and now often have to pay to have them buried or burnt.
It’s also doesn’t include the loss of tourism dollars or the environmental impact.
I have to quote Prerna Singh Bindra, author of The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis, who sums it up beautifully: “For years condemned as harbingers of death, the value of vultures has only been realised when they virtually are at death’s door.”
It’s interesting to note that in the last few years, the medical community has actually started warning humans against the casual use of diclofenac because of increased risks of heart attack and stroke. Physicians are now strongly recommending that diclofenac and other NSAIDs should only be used at the lowest dose for the shortest duration possible.
It would be sadly ironic if vultures turned out to be the canaries in the coalmine when it comes to warning us about these medications.
Anyway, we mentioned GPS trackers earlier. Well, recent tracking of wild white-rumped vultures in Nepal has shown that annual survival rates are very high, which has led to the declaration of the world’s first genuinely safe Vulture Safe Zone.
CHRIS: One area that we're really pleased with the progress on is in Nepal where we've had the breeding program up and running and we've been getting…the diclofenac levels have really gone right down. So the government and local partners have done a great job with the Vulture Safe Zone in getting the veterinary drugs under control and the vulture population is responding! It’s increasing by 2 to 3% per year for the last five years. And so we've been proceeding with the releases there, tagging any released birds and tagging wild birds in the same area as well, and that's all reassuring us that we're doing the right thing by getting the veterinary drugs out of the system. That the vultures are responding. So we're going ahead…and the ultimate sign of success in Nepal is that we are closing the breeding centre this year, and so that is almost…I wouldn't say it's job done because, you know, it's neighbouring India and areas where those drugs are not under control and we need to do a lot more in the rest of south Asia to make it safe enough, but replicate this great progress that's been happening in Nepal. So that's a nice positive that we'll be celebrating in the coming months…and our annual SAVE meeting will be…participants will be witnessing the very final release in Nepal. So that's something very positive.
HOST: That's wonderful. That must be so exciting for you…
CHRIS: It is very exciting and if we can just get a broader buy-in from range-state governments to address the issues with these other veterinary drugs and get the Vulture Safe Zones up and running and enough birds tagged to prove that they're safe so we can release the birds in India as well, then we'll be really getting there. So that's the aim, and that's where we're heading but there's still quite a long way to go I'm afraid.
HOST (voiceover): In conclusion, I’d like to dwell for a moment on the fact that nobody saw this coming. In cyber-security they would call it a zero-day event; something that had never happened before and hadn’t even been imagined could happen. Think of it, that’s what the SAVE team were facing, something utterly unprecedented.
But unforeseen events do happen so we really must show our thanks, support and appreciation to the women and men out there protecting the magnificent birds and animals that we’re lucky enough to share the planet with.
I think any philanthropist would find this is an extremely worthy project to support – especially now with the new direction being taken with the satellite trackers. This is one of those programmes that’s so wonderful because it combines helping both birds and humans – you’ve got nature conservation and humanitarian benefit - so you’re getting double bang for your buck.
I first read about the disasterous decline of the vultures a few years ago…I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s it, I thought, we’re witnessing the end of wild vultures in Asia. Because it had happened so fast and the threat was so common and widespread and they were scrambling to even find any remaining vultures so I honestly didn’t see how the conservation efforts could succeed.
I’m very happy to be proven wrong and this is a story I will be following with interest. My thanks to Chris Bowden and all at SAVE…and of course to you for listening.
You’ll need some vocabulary for all the conversations about vultures that you’re going to be having now; so a group of vultures in flight is called a kettle – when they’re circling around in the sky, that’s called kettling. A group of vultures resting on the ground or in trees is called a committee and - I love this - a group of vultures feeding and picking over the bones is called a wake.
And if you meet someone who claims that vultures are ugly or unpleasant I would urge you to quote the exuberant Irish biologist and author, Éanna Ní Lamhna, when she was asked if she had a favourite animal.
CLIP: “No I don’t! No, I mean, anything…everything in the world has a place. It all has a place and if we don’t have them there, that gap…there’d be a gap. Even bluebottles! I mean, I don’t love bluebottles – indeed I don’t – but bluebottles are meant to be breaking down dead things in the hedge. People are always saying, you know, birds die, where do they go? I mean, they’re broken down and decomposed. They’re part of…bluebottles are part of the decomposition cycle. So, I mean, we tend to anthropomorphisise. We tend to say, oh I like this coz it looks lovely, to our eyes. So, I love something that looks gorgeous, like a ladybird, but I hate something that looks horrible like a woodlouse. I mean, that’s errant nonsense. So you can’t be saying, I like one and I don’t like the other. It’s not up to us to like them. You know, I mean, the more you learn about things, the more interested you become in them. So, something’s that…wherever it is, is fascinating when you understand what’s going on. So, you know, you can’t be saying, I like this one and I hate that one. That’s no way to describe the world in which we live.”
HOME (voiceover): Well, if it’s a choice between being eaten by bluebottle flies or vultures, I think I’d take vultures.
And I wouldn’t be alone.
For centuries, a Zoroastrian community in India called the Parsis, have left the bodies of their dead in open-topped structures called Towers of Silence. The bodies were set out on a high plinth where the vultures could get to them.
Sky Burials are part of Tibetan culture well, as a funeral practice where the body is placed on a mountaintop to decompose and be eaten by scavenging animals, especially vultures. The donation of the body to the birds is seen as an act of generosity and compassion. In death, the last act of a religious person becomes a life-sustaining resource for other living creatures.
I hope you enjoyed this episode and I would encourage you to check out the links in the shownotes, as well as visiting the SAVE website and social media pages to follow their wonderful work.
Thanks for listening and see you next time.