Of all the stories I have heard of in this year's environmental journalism convention (held in New Orleans) none dropped my jaw quite like Meera Subramanian's long-form piece in VQR India's Vanishing Vultures.
I hope to quote just enough to convince you folks to read the whole thing — it's just great. And it's worth mentioning, after seeing Meera speak at a seminar on how to survive as a freelancer, how wandering her road to this success was, beginning with an obsession with peregrine falcons in New York City that she could not sell as a book, which led to a discovery about vultures, which led to a small article in an obscure religious magazine about the vultures, which led to this great VQR piece, which led to more opportunities and eventually a book about something else entirely.
But! Back to the vanishing vultures.
At first, no one noticed they were missing.
Vultures—massive and clumsy, their naked faces buried in rotting flesh along the roadside, on the banks of the Ganges, lining the high walls and spires of every temple and tower—were once so ubiquitous in India as to be taken for granted, invisible. And something in us didn’t want to see them.
But for all of human history, vultures served India faithfully. They scoured the countryside, clearing fields of dead cows and goats. They soared over the cities in search of road kill and picked at the scattered refuse of the region’s ever-expanding populace. For a subcontinent where religious and cultural mores restrict the handling of the dead, human and animal alike—Muslims won’t eat an animal that hasn’t been killed according to halal; Hindus won’t consume cows under any circumstances—vultures were a natural and efficient disposal system.
Just fifteen years ago, there were at least fifty million vultures on the Indian subcontinent; today, according to Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, less than sixty thousand individuals of the three species survive in the wild—and a newly-completed Indian-sponsored census, the first in three years, is yielding even more distressing results. Several hundred long-bills still fly over the cliffs of Ranthambhore in Rajasthan, some perch high on the domed pavilions of Orchha’s cenotaphs in Madhya Pradesh, and I have seen a colony of twenty white-backs on stick nests in the crooks of trees along a hidden riverbank in Bandhavgarh, but some scientists have started calling these species “functionally extinct” and refer to their own research as “monitoring to extinction.”
I found Nikita [Prakash]’s apparent love for the birds contagious. I felt the same intimate wonder I have when watching any creature up close, but there was something else that I can only define as a pre-nostalgia, an ache for something that will soon be gone.
Great great story. Please, even if it is three years old, please, read the whole thing.