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The Vanishing

Little noticed by the outside world, perhaps the most dramatic decline of a wild animal in history has been taking place in India and Pakistan. Large vultures, vitally necessary and once numbering in the tens of millions, now face extinction. But why?

There is a moment during the capturing of baby vultures when the human nose can be considered an asset. In the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve of central India, this moment comes for us atop a 100-foot-high cliff etched with natural ledges and carved crenelations of an ancient Hindu fort built into the cliff's sandstone face. These high niches are prime nesting habitat for long-billed vultures, but this year only a few of the great birds have returned to nest, and chicks are few and far between. When a pungent, three-day-old diaper smell wafts up to us, we peer down, and there, on a ledge 30 feet below us, lies an eagle-size chick in a messy nest of twigs.

One of the nestling's enormous parents wheels into view. We see its full seven-foot wingspan, the tawny plumage on the adult's back rippling in the updraft, its darker wing feathers splayed at the tips. The bird banks hard and alights on the ledge. It nudges the chick, opens its long bill and urps up supper.

"Uh-oh. Bad timing," Richard Wesley says.

"Yep," says Richard Cuthbert. "You'll be seeing that meal again."

Cuthbert is a biologist with the United Kingdom's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Wesley is taking a busman's holiday from his job managing the New Zealand Alpine Club. The third member of this cliff-side team is a Bombay Natural History Society biologist named Shanmugam Saravanan.

Wesley clips a cloth bag to his rock-climbing harness and steps over the edge of the cliff. The adult bird dives away. Wesley drops 30 or so feet to the ledge, scoops the ungainly chick into the bag and climbs back. A wine-dark fluid seeps from the bag. At this point in vulture catching, the human nose can be considered a liability. "Vulture chicks vomit up the contents of their crops when they're stressed," Cuthbert says apologetically. "Thought to be a defense mechanism. Rather an effective one."

If the bag's stench of twice-regurgitated carrion reinforces one's stereotypes about the repugnance of vultures, the chick that emerges from the bag dispels them. Up close, the baby is a beauty—the bare skin of its swan neck palest aqua, its pinfeathers a wild duck's browns.

The long-billed vulture, Gyps indicus, is one of three vulture species that serve as sanitation engineers in India, Nepal and Pakistan. For thousands of years, they have fed on livestock carcasses. As many as 40 million of the birds once inhabited the region. Obstreperous flocks of vultures thronged carcass dumps, nested on every tall tree and cliff ledge, and circled high overhead, seemingly omnipresent. In Delhi, perching vultures ornamented the tops of every ancient ruin. In Mumbai, vultures circled the Parsi community's hilltop sanctuary. Parsis, who are members of the Zoroastrian religion, lay their dead atop stone Towers of Silence so that vultures can devour the flesh. This practice, according to Parsi tradition, protects dead bodies from the defiling touch of earth, water or fire.

But across the subcontinent all three species of Gyps vultures are disappearing. Dead livestock lie uneaten and rotting. These carcasses are fueling a population boom in feral dogs and defeating the government's efforts to combat rabies. Vultures have become so rare that the Parsi in Mumbai have resorted to placing solar reflectors atop the Towers of Silence to hasten the decomposition of bodies. International conservation groups now advocate the capture of long-billed, white-backed and slender-billed vultures for conservation breeding.

That's why we're here. Cuthbert and Saravanan have permits to take eight long-billed vulture chicks from Bandhavgarh. (Young birds adapt more readily to captive conditions than adults, and once these birds can fly they're almost impossible to catch.) The recovery plan calls for a minimum of 25 pairs of each vulture species to be held in each of three breeding centers in northern India.

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