For close to twenty years, I’ve covered the catastrophic decline, and tentative recovery, of South Asia’s vultures. In my book A River Runs Again, I took a deep dive into the situation in India. Last year, I went to Nepal to cover a new chapter in the story, as the country’s captive-breeding program came to a close, and the last birds were released back into the wild. The story was published today at The New Yorker. Here’s a bit:
We were in a microcosm of abundance in a landscape of loss: most of the nine vulture species found in South Asia were there in front of us. We watched white-rumped vultures, whose neck ruffles look like seventeenth-century formal wear, and Himalayan griffons, which are larger and paler. We also saw an immense cinereous vulture; a red-headed vulture with fuschia wattles; and a small Egyptian vulture. Nepali pointed out a slender-billed vulture. According to the I.U.C.N. Red List of Threatened Species, there are less than one thousand mature individuals left in the world.
One bird tugged at the cow’s head, which was now detached. The vultures were so gross that they were gorgeous. It’s easy to shun vultures as dirty and disgusting, or as harbingers of death, but they are more like undertakers, performing an essential job and receiving little thanks for their work. As obligate scavengers, vultures survive almost exclusively on what is already dead.