Where are the good ol’ vultures?
I am out for an early morning walk and my serene walk is suddenly interrupted by an ugly sight. An open dustbin in the city is overflowing and the garbage almost screaming at passersby.
On a casual enquiry I am told that the garbage collector has given a miss and hence the predicament. I think to myself, how wonderful it would be if there would be some method by which it could be cleansed without much hassle.
But then, many a times we are unaware of the natural cleaners nature provides us with. I remember the first time I was in Mumbai and had heard of the ‘Tower of Silence’, where the Parsi community left their dead to be fed on by the vultures.
It fascinated me to see that in a manner of hours the vultures would consume the body and cleanse the place of any trace of the person that had been left behind.
It amazed me to find out that nature had equipped us so beautifully with almost everything we need for our existence. If it has given us flowers for healing the soul and fruits to keep hunger at bay, it also gave us vultures to keep the earth clean.
In fact vultures are very well designed to do the process of cleaning. Incidentally, mythology blends with science, in naming the vultures in Turkey as ‘Cathartes aura’, which translates into ‘cleansing breeze’, in Latin.
Unlike people, who use bulldozers to clean up, nature had devised in these animals a very effective clean up act. But what is most amazing about nature’s balance is the fact that not only does it not overlook anything, but there is such beautiful co-existence about everything.
It is perhaps a juggling act that many of us could learn much from. In the same vein if the vulture has the capacity to clean, it is robbed of the capacity to kill, which is left to other birds of prey. The vulture’s body structure is not suited to easy killing of prey. Incredibly, these birds keep a hygienic routine themselves by regularly bathing and drinking at waterholes.
Tilt the balance even a little bit and the repercussions are strong. But then man refuses to learn most times! A very small but effective example of the effects of distortion in nature was felt by the disappearance of vultures from Mumbai.
The Parsi community found to its horror that the bodies kept atop the ‘Tower of silence’ were not being devoured by the vultures! This has been attributed to different causes such as, the vultures being disturbed by the proximity of the airport and the sounds from airplanes or the shifting of the central Bombay slaughterhouses to the outskirts of the city, but the fact remains that the dearth of the vultures coming into feed on the corpses has in fact led to a crisis in the Parsi tradition as well as creating problems from the stink of bodies that lie rotten for a long time.
This led to confusion amongst the community, because according to their belief, they do not cremate the dead but leave it to the elements. The lack of vultures made much of this difficult, which would lead to rotten flesh and spread diseases.
In this regard I am reminded of Kevin Carter’s famous Pulitzer winning photograph, which had showed a vulture waiting to feed on a dying child from the 1993 famine in Sudan.
The picture was made famous because of the fact that it showed the horrific state of human life during the famine. But what has perhaps not been discussed as much is another facet of nature.
In cleaning up the dead carcasses, vultures in Sudan in fact helped in controlling much of the epidemic that is a natural outcome of such famines.
Time for a wakeup call perhaps for all of us and adhere to the signs of nature, making the best of what it has so kindly bestowed on us.
Maitreyee Chowdhury is a Bangalore based writer