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.
I worked with incredible people at every step. Immense gratitude to all the folks working to save South Asia’s vultures. I so appreciated their tenderness with the birds, as well as their patience with my endless questions and assistance in the field and long before…and afterwards. Thanks to The New Yorker folks, especially editor Daniel A. Gross. And abundant gratitude to the National Geographic Society for the Storyteller grant that got me there (and made me an Explorer), and grants manager David Y. Lee, who helped me navigate the many delays caused by the pandemic. The grant also helped support my teammates in the field: Indian photographer (and fellow Explorer) Alisha Vasudev, who shot the gorgeous photos for the piece, and talented Nepali journalist Tulsi Rauniyar. Here we are:
Tulsi produced an excellent video about Nepal’s vultures in Himal Southasian, which you can watch here:
I encourage you to follow their work.
Regarding the future of vultures in South Asia, I’ll close with a quote from the story: “It took us twenty years—two decades—to achieve this,” Ankit Bilash Joshi told me. “The rest of the world should learn from Nepal.”