The Vulnerability of Abundance
Back on land at No Pants Ranch near Tucson, I overlap my SOMA (Sittin' On My Ass) beer time with the evening emergence of our Brazilian free-tailed bat co-habitants. When at anchor aboard Triplefin my SOMA time coincides with the evening's upwelling of local vultures. I spend a lot of time appreciating our common turkey and black vultures here, thinking how fortunate we are to still have them swirling overhead while some other countries are losing theirs. Take India . . .
India’s common White-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis) was the world’s most abundant large bird of prey just three decades ago. They kettled in ubiquitous social spirals over the skies of Southern and Southeastern Asia and have been the essential emissary for Parsi Zoroastrians’ 3,000 year old end-of-life ritual. The scavenging birds are both a pragmatic and spiritual part of the Parsi cleansing ceremonies. They lay their loved ones’ bodies in circular, open air Towers of Silence, offering up the deceased’s body as food for the ever-circling, waiting birds. The Parsi dead have their bones and, as they see it, souls efficiently cleansed by the vultures in just hours. The remaining flesh-free bones are then swept down into the central hole of the tower. Their culture sees the vulture, not as a disgusting and unwelcome reminder of mortality, but as a divine connection between the material and spiritual worlds.
Between 1992 and 2005, 99.9% of the entire White-rumped vulture population was lost, their numbers dropping from an unfathomable 50 million to an abhorrently measurable 50 thousand! The Parsi’s beloved dead soon lay rotting in over-filled towers of stench and prolonged mourning. India’s once abundant vulture is, essentially, just gone. These vultures, we now know, were critical to widespread human and environmental health as essential decomposers who prevented the spread of diseases by consuming about 12 million tons of rotting flesh (especially cattle) each year. Now, feral, often rabid, dogs are attacking people and imperiled wildlife as they fill the birds’ niche as scavengers throughout India.
So, what happened?
The obvious killing blow was Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug (think Ibuprofen for veterinarians) used in livestock, and then ingested by the giant birds when they feed on cow carcasses. The less evident, insidious villain lies in our particularly human aesthetic. We tend to under appreciate not only what our culture labels grotesque but that which is simply common. These carrion feeders were once so familiar across the Indian landscape as to be largely ignored and thus under-studied even by biologists until their numbers were in flightless free-fall. Before a species can achieve protected status there must be sufficient data collected, analyzed, and published to list it as endangered; a process that takes time and money. However, the lion’s share (pun intended) of the world’s already constricted conservation money goes towards the warm-blooded and furry among us, not the slimy, scaly or bald-headed and wrinkly-necked. India’s government is a perfect example of such speciesism: 70% of their Ministry of Environment and Forests’ budget goes solely to easy-to-love tigers. These cultural blind-spots, among others, are to blame for Gyps bengalensis not being recognized as critically endangered by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) until 2000.
To honor this overlooked and under-appreciated species, I built a miniature Tower of Silence for the birds (see images). I sculpted twenty-four tiny, individual Gyps bengalensis vultures, wrapped each in a clay-dipped shroud, and laid them out to rest around the tower’s circular hole. I then crafted just one view-obscuring wing which can be lifted on its hinge as a bird would lift its wing to fly. This way, someone who takes care with their actions may gently remove, palm-cradle, and consider one of the bald-headed, wrinkle-necked treasures.
Imagine my amazement when, after completing my single-winged sculpture, I learned from Meera Subramanian’s A River Runs Again, of the popular Hindu myth concerning the vulture demi-god, Jatayu. In one version the aging Jatayu tries in vain to stop the powerful demon, Ravana, from kidnapping Sita, the embodiment of Lakshmi, goddess of abundance. Jatayu fights a brave battle, deflecting the muscle-bound Ravana’s many arrows but he is ultimately killed when the demon sneak-attacks with a hidden sword, slicing off just one wing of the vulture god, who then free-falls to earth. Perhaps there are some modern lessons that can be taken from this tale when it is told to the next generation. Will they look up into empty, blue skies and feel the vulnerability of abundance?