How did you hear about India's dying vultures?
I was doing some research for a story on rabies, and a rabies scientist told me that rabies was on the rise in India because the vultures were being killed. Looking into it, I found a detective story with incredible elements: a fascinating bird, with all its ghoulish appeal, the idea that this country of a billion people disposes of almost all its livestock carcasses by letting nature take its course. And there was also a clash of the cultures, with Westerners coming over to work with the Indians, and the frustrations each of them had with the other.
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Had you ever been up close and personal with vultures before?
I had seen vultures in Brazil, when I was doing a story that included trying to radio-collar jaguars. The way the jaguar biologists would find jaguars was they would look in the sky for vultures. If they saw a whole lot of vultures circling, they knew it was probably a fresh kill and the jaguars would come back the next day. Those vultures were fantastically repulsive. Old World vultures are less so—they're hardly related at all to New World vultures, and they can be quite beautiful.
Were you going to India expecting to be grossed out?
Well, I knew that my trip to India was going to be different than most people's trips to India. All my friends were saying, "Oh you're so lucky! The crafts! The clothing! The wildlife!" And I spent half my time in India in carcass dumps.
What was it like to accompany the scientists when they captured the chicks?
It was very poignant for me watching the parent vultures come to feed their chicks on the cliffs where we were capturing them. We were capturing them to save their lives and save their species, but it was still sad. Adult vultures don't defend the nest—they're very long-lived birds, and it's much better, evolutionarily-speaking, not to risk the lives of adult birds for one season's young. So the adults would just move away, but they'd land on another ledge somewhere and watch us taking their chicks. Of course I indulged all my anthropomorphic maternal feelings, thinking of my own chicks thousands of miles away at home. The biologists didn't feel that way at all, because they were thinking, "Oh, God it's going to throw up on us!" That was funny, because I was saying, "Aw, I hate to see that," and they said, "Oh, so do we!"
Do you think the species survival program has any hope of saving the species? Is it going to result in anything more than a small collection of individuals in zoos?
Optimistically, there's a chance that if the governments acted really quickly they could get diclofenac out of the system. The vultures' habitat is all there, and often the major problem for endangered species is that the habitat is gone and there's no place to put them back. But vultures are very slow to reproduce, and it will take a long time to get the diclofenac out of the pockets of herders, so it will be years before vultures can be reintroduced into the wild. By that time, the system will have changed, and there won't be so many carcasses around anymore. India will start doing something else with its carcasses, and people won't be used to having these big smelly birds nesting in their villages anymore, so they won't tolerate them in the same way. It is likely that vultures will get back into the wild, but things will never be the same.
What is India going to do with its livestock carcasses now?
Well, in some places they're already apparently experimenting with burning them or burying them or using chemical disposal. But it is a problem. I tried to interview officials in various places about what they were going to do, but I found it very difficult. It's handled regionally and every little area does their own thing, so there was no centralized information source. India is also famous for its red tape—they call it red-tapism—and because of that it was almost impossible to talk to anyone from the government. I never got an official answer, and I don't know that India is really thinking about it yet.
Will India have to reduce the number of cows they have roaming the streets?
They can't. For religious reasons they will not eat the beef, they won't send it to be eaten, and they won't slaughter the animals. And livestock are an important part of the economy. They milk the cows, and they use them to pull carts and plows and wagons. The leather industry is huge in India, and they even use the bones. After the meat has been consumed or rotted away, there are bone collectors who go around and collect the bones, and they're sold to be used as fertilizer and in soap.
What do regular Indians think about losing their vultures?
Actually, I have a funny story about that. When you picture this in your mind you probably picture a cow carcass with 30 dead vultures lying around, but it wasn't like that. No one ever found any dead vultures, there were simply less and less of them. It turns out that's because they're dark and hard to see, they die up in the tree branches and they stay there, scavengers get them, and it's really hot so they decompose quickly. But for a long time no one saw any dead vultures, so the when [biologist] Vibhu Prakash first started asking villagers, "Where are the vultures?" the villagers told him, "The Americans are stealing them, they're vacuuming them out of the sky."
Why would Americans want their vultures?
They didn't know why we wanted vultures, but they know that we have fantastic technology and are capable of anything. Indian politicians have a saying: when they want to pass the blame on, they say "It's the foreign hand." So it might be related to the foreign hand, but in any case Prakash was very amused.
Did the villagers realize the missing vultures were a big problem?
Oh, totally, the way they noticed that the vultures were missing was the carcasses piling up everywhere and stinking.