Way back in the Seventies, while living in Bombay (as it was then) and before any real interest in birds had taken hold, I used to rush up to the terrace of our building to watch squadrons of vultures go by, virtually at eye level, as our building was perched on top of a hill high above the city. Wave after wave, like silent bombers, they would sail past with hardly a wingbeat amongst them. They were the epitome of gliding grace. In great lazy circles, they would gain more and more height and soar, wheeling languidly and making the black kites look puny and somewhat neurotic in comparison. Even here in Delhi, I would watch out for them to land on the big old trees in the Qudsia Gardens next door every evening, losing height on their approach, to touch down precisely on the branch they had chosen.
Here, they would hunch querulously till around 11 am the next morning before lumbering up into the sky to catch the thermals and be off to work, cleaning up the dead dogs and other road-kill of the night. And when they gathered around on the massive overhead water-tank, you knew we were in for a torrid summer.
Apart from their ability to fly high (one has reportedly crashed into a plane at nearly 40,000 feet), I envied their strong stomachs. Vultures have stomachs to die for. The most unhygienic street food would turn into soothing comfort food because the acids they produce can lay low botulism, hog cholera, rabies, anthrax and virtually anything you can throw at them — or catch from the gutter. One report I read claimed that their stomach acid was about a thousand times as strong as ours (and presumably came with ultra ulcer-protection to match!) The lammergeyer or bearded vulture breaks and gobbles bones (and marrow), swallowing some pieces so large that their stomach acids begin to sizzle and dissolve the sections first reaching the stomach, even before the whole bone has got in. Nasty bacteria, including botulism toxins, hog cholera, and even rabies and anthrax stand little chance against the ferociously corrosive acid. And it’s best not to startle or disturb a dining vulture for it is likely to be sick all over you — and apart from making you unfit for any company for a long while, thanks to the rancid stink, the barf will actually burn you. (What a way of ending a meal where you’ve just been told that you’ve been fired or have been denied a ticket: you get up, gulp and then vomit flamboyantly all over your boss/leader and exclaim, “well, yes and you make me sick!” and stalk off!) Not only that, but vultures also pee and poo the acrid stuff all over their own feet to sterilise them because they’ve been wading around knee deep in putrefying carcasses.
They do a fabulous clean up job. Salim Ali wrote that a wake of 60-70 vultures pared the carcasses of two skinned sloth bears down to the bone in 20 minutes flat. We’ve all seen films of large groups of vultures fight ghoulishly over the corpses of animals — they’re not a particularly edifying sight, but they’re supposed to be amongst the most hygienic of birds. They have to be, considering their diet, taking care that their plumage is always crisp and pristine. Their bald heads help them plunge deep into the unspeakable regions of long dead creatures — feathered heads would clog up with bacteria laden muck and spread infection. They also help the birds regulate body temperature which is why they tuck in their heads like hunchbacks in winter and stick them out to the maximum in summer.
You might argue, what good are vultures anyway, except maybe for giving us the creeps? They’re ugly, doomsday foretellers of death; they hunch around the sick and dying and just wait (Remember that heart-rending image of a vulture waiting for a starving African toddler to die?). In countries like ours, they’re invaluable. Livestock (and we have hell of a lot) will die, whether we like it or not, whether we eat them or not, and if their carcasses are allowed to rot, there’s danger of spreading infection. Sure, there are other scavengers to clean up; but none that can also deal with anthrax and cholera like the vultures can. Rats are vectors of disease anyway, dogs can spread rabies. As for municipalities, well you decide…
What’s astonishing — and very sobering indeed — is that these iron-clad birds, with their bulletproof stomachs (and Bear Grylls appetite) have been laid low by, of all things, an analgesic (diclofenac) given to cattle. For birds that could take on anthrax and botulism head-on, it seems a bit infra-dig to be laid low by a muscle relaxant and painkiller, but there it is: vulture numbers have fallen by over 95 per cent in our region of the world.
The real trouble starts when you start to extrapolate a bit and think about all the other — even apparently innocuous — substances we have let loose in our environment with such gay abundance without pausing to contemplate if there could be consequences, or what they might be. And the next time, we could be the ones that get bitten in our kidneys, or for that matter in much more sensitive places, with the same sort of consequences.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher