The Taj Mahal, one of the world’s most beautiful and best known architectural wonders was also a favourite haunt for the Indian vulture.
It was a seeming contradiction, even, profanity, the sight of those vultures circling high above that tomb and its high towers, there in that human representation of Paradise with its gardens and waters and its architectural wonders …..a bird of carrion, a scavenger….yet it was richly symbolic of the splendid contrasts and contradictions of India.
Eight centuries ago, the armies of Mohammed had invaded the subcontinent but failed to convert the majority of the population who remained Hindus and surely the most graphic example of this failure was the Hindus worship of the vulture.
For over two thousand years, the vulture was a sacred bird for the Hindus.
And then a time came when they ceased regarding it as an object of worship and it was a portent of trouble ahead, of dark and pungent clouds gathering over the Taj Mahal….and also the human race….and you and me.….
How did this happen? How did this metaphor of our collective crisis unfold?
In the fate of that holy scavenger, our fate…..
Watching the vultures from the banks of the river Jamuna tearing at corpses, the same ones which glided around the Taj Mahal, they seemed to me like science fiction monsters, something out of a nightmare. But the reality was, they performed a necessary task, one which had proved essential to the survival of the human race on the subcontinent.
Organised human civilisation in India can be dated back at least 5000 years. During that time, the Indian vulture provided a clean-up service for the human beings – especially in the case of animals used by farmers such as cows, oxen, water buffalo and donkeys. A bevy of vultures could strip the corpse of an ox of all its meat and leave behind a clean skeleton within a few hours. The vulture was an efficient scavenger.
Besides dead animals however, dead human beings were also a significant part of the vulture’s diet. There were the corpses deliberately left for the vultures to consume for religious reasons e g by the Parsis and the Tibetans with their ‘sky burials’.
But there was a far more significant source of human flesh – war. Wars had always been a part of the subcontinent’s long history – at least as much as they had been a part of Europe’s much shorter history. There were the wars between the Moslem Mughals who ruled in the north and the Hindus Rajahs who ruled in the south; these were wars for control over the subcontinent. Then there were wars between rival claimants for the Mughal throne and between rival Hindu Rajahs; these were turf wars within the broader division between Islam and Hinduism. Like Europe, the Indian subcontinent was the scene of endless wars. For untold centuries, an all too familiar sight were hundreds – if not more – corpses lying on fields festering in the hot sun. Even in the cooler climes of Europe, it was often the corpses lying on the fields after a battle which led to the deaths of far more people than during than the battle as a result of diseases and epidemics. This grim equation must have been doubly true on the subcontinent with its hot climate. The vultures removed that threat and thereby did much to save Indian civilisation from itself.
All in all, as a species, the vulture’s means of existence was intricately interconnected with the survival of the humans. And this surely lay behind the vulture’s appearance in the Ramayana as ‘Jatayu’, the vulture God who plays an instrumental role in ensuring the triumph of Good over Evil.
Shortly after our vist to the Taj Mahal in 1987, the Indian vulture went into a rapid spiral of decline and within a decade was close to extinction. A species whose original numbers were estimated at between 30 and 40 million had all but vanished. It was one of the most dramatic decline of any animal species ever recorded and no one knew the reason for it.
In 2004 the cause of the vulture’s devastating decline was finally acertained. American scientists using vulture tissue from Pakistan (which unlike India allowed vulture tissue to be taken out of the country for analysis) discovered that the vultures were being poisoned by the carcasses of farm animals, especially cows and oxen, which had been given a chemical called diclofenac. Diclofenac was one of the most useful – and widely used – drugs in the world. It was the active ingredient in a wide range of painkillers (over 30 of them) used to treat serious pain, including cancer, arthritis and migraine. In developed countries, most of the drugs containing diclofenac were only available on prescription (except for a few over the counter trade names including Cataflam and Voltaren).
In India and many other developing nations, most drugs were available without prescription including those containing diclofenac – and in India and Pakistan, diclofenac based chemicals were fed to farm animals, especially the older ones, to inure them to the pain of overworked and underfed. It meant that these animals could be worked right up to the last minute of their miserable lives. When they died, their carcasses were eaten by the vultures, which were then poisoned. Known to be toxic to mammals in high doses, diclofenac ,as it turned out, was fatal to vultures in extremely low doses. A cow for example fed 10% of the recommended dose of diclofenac (and most of them were probably fed much more) was already toxic enough to be fatal to the vultures. And because vultures flocked from far and wide to feed on a carcass, this meant that less than 1% of all the animal carcasses on the subcontinent containing traces of diclofenac were enough to trigger off a precipitous decline in vulture numbers. Put succinctly: any traces of diclofenac in the vulture’s diet were way too much.
In 2006 the Indian government banned the use of diclofenac by farmers. If it had been left to the same Indian government, the cause of the swift demise of Jatayu would have never been discovered. A breeding programme was set up with the aim of raising vultures in captivity and releasing them in the wild. It had little chance of success. But the Indian vulture was a slow breeding bird. At four years of age, it pared for life and didn’t produce more than one chick a year. And there was still the problem of diclofenac. There was no hope for the new born vultures so long as there were any traces of it left in the environment. And there lay a problem; the chemical was still widely available for use by human beings; it was one thing to ban its use for animals but quite another to do the same for old villagers suffering from arthritis. Yet once sold across the counter, it was impossible to control its subsequent use afterwards. It was a simple matter for a farmer to buy diclofenac at any of the millions of pharmaceutical stalls all over India.
Jatauyu had served the human race remarkably well for thousands of years and now it was gone. Ancient India was being trampled underfoot by new India and it was a Faustian bargain if there ever was one. Rising living standards, better health, a superpower India, brought with it the extinction of an old and loyal friend, a sacred god from the pages of the Ramayana.
The fate of 40 million Indian vultures was an apocalyptical tale.
One of the greatest animal extinctions in history had occurred and not because anyone had intended it to happen; the bird had not been hunted for its meat or feathers or for any other reason. It hadn’t been hunted to extinction like the passenger pigeon in America during the nineteenth century.
Its fate, like most of wildlife in Australia, was the inevitable consequence of progress.
No one, least of all the Indian farmers, had been happy to see the vultures go.
The point of no return in the survival stakes of the vulture was passed well before anyone knew what the cause was. By the time that the scientists discovered the diclofenac factor, it was too late. We were living in a world where the problems were mounting so quickly they were outstripping our ability to solve them: over population, climate change, environmental destruction, water scarcity and economic inequality to name a few.
Where was the tipping point for our planet? For us?
They had formed a strange, ironic partnership: The Taj Mahal and the circling vultures; an unlikely union of Islam and Hinduism, of Allah and Jatayu. Paradise and a sacred scavenger.
Jatayu was gone and the stifling pollution, so that you might not even see the Taj Mahal on a bad day, was corroding its legendary marble forms and turning them yellow.
The Indian man I met on the flight into Adelaide somehow thought that the blinding pollution and its effects were an Indian problem. Get on a flight to Australia and it was all behind you.