Dr Ajaz Anwar on saving vultures, an important part of the ecosystem
Once upon a time in the deep cobalt blue skies when smog and pollution were unheard of, one could see big kites gliding in circles in considerable flocks. Among those, a few were a bit bigger and more gracefully enjoying their flight. Upon closer inspection, they appeared to be a different species. They were called vultures.
Not many remember that these birds — the biggest flying birds we know — were a common sight in the open skies. They weren’t birds of prey; just scavengers; and they would eat away all the flesh of the dead animals, exposing the bones. They were an important part of the eco-system, keeping the environment safe for other living beings and protecting the water systems from unfriendly bacteria.
The University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences (UVAS), commonly called Ghorra Haspatal, located near the district courts, catered to the husbanding needs of different animals and treated the sick entrants. Its best clinic was for the dogs. But larger animals, like the bulls and buffaloes ie the milch cattle were its specialisation.
While the carcasses of dogs and cats are small, those of larger animals represent a problem in disposing of. For this, the teaching hospital used to have an open morgue for the dead beasts on this side of the Ravi. A large tract was used to throw away the dead animals for the scavenging birds and dogs competing to eat flesh. Dozens of vultures dissecting open the dead animals to eat the innards might be an eerie sight for the faint hearted. Yes, the innards. This is where the real culprit that caused the extinction of the scavenging vultures was later traced to. But more on that later.
Vultures glide in big circles without flapping their wings, using the thermal corridor that causes the hot air to rise. As such they save energy. They can get a view of the larger arena where any gatherings of birds or carnivorous animals are spotted by them to join the meals.
Some vultures have an exceptional sense of smell. They can eat even the bones by digging their sharp curved beaks into the marrow. Some mature ones are also known to fly high altitudes and throw big bones to be broken for easy gulping. Rotting meat is actually good for their stomachs which have very strong acids that can kill any harmful bacteria.
Vultures are also very social. They help one another rip open their tough skins. Dead animals placed in the open outside the villages and in the animal hospital’s morgue are already skinned.
In some cultures and religions, vultures enjoy a very important status. The Egyptians had their images engraved on the sarcophagi. Tibetan Buddhists believed the vultures helped the departed souls rise to the heavens while their earthly remains were consumed by the scavengers. Zoroastrians, or Parsis, greatly revere these birds. They place their dead in a higher place called the Tower of Silence for these birds to feed on and consume, thereby returning the nutrients.
Bapsi Sidhwa, in her first, self-published novel, Crow Eaters, praises the beauty of the birds and later laments their dwindling numbers. Indeed, the bird is getting rarer. It is threatened to the stage of extinction, because of a number of reasons. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has already placed this bird in the endangered category.
This bird does not threaten other species because it is not a predator. It eats only the leftover or the dead and already killed animals. In fact, it helps stop the spread of a lot of diseases by consuming the decaying flesh.
It does not multiply fast because it is usually monogamous. It lays only one or two eggs. The one that hatches earlier kills the latter one. It has a life span of 40 years. It is never threatened by any other animal; it has no predator. The real culprit is a medicine used diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug injected in cows and water buffaloes for decades. Its sodium content stays in the muscles and innards of the cattle. When these are consumed by the vultures their kidneys are affected and may stop functioning, leading to their death.
Diclofenac was originally used for treating arthritis. The veterinarians later started using it to treat the cows and water buffaloes, circa 1974. The problem reared its head, killing large numbers of vultures in India, Pakistan and neighbouring countries, wherever the sodium-based medicine was being injected to the bovines.
A safer drug now being prescribed by the doctors is tolfenamic acid.
It was in the year 2003 that the previously used drug was found to be the cause of deaths of millions of vultures. However, tradition-bound farmers and vets are reluctant to use the safer alternative. In Pakistan, the birds were a thriving species, as is evident from the accompanying sketches I made as early as in 1967.
The bird is a precision surgeon when feasting on the innards. It peeks and examines the inside of the skeletal cage. No wonder many species are bald headed and often named as such.
Its long neck allows its eyes to probe deeply for the choicest of the proteins. The good scavenger, though, had to be saved at a great cost.
The bird population that numbered 40 million had dwindled and 99.9 percent of them died. This was the largest population crash of any bird in history. Fortunately, many organisations have sprung up to save this great friend of environment. Projects have been initiated to hatch its chicken to be released in the forests. The six chicks released by the Lahore IUCN into the forest of Chaanga Maanga forest have not yet reported back.
But felling of trees in and around the cities and villages has reduced nestling opportunities for these birds. Moreover, the flesh of dead animals after being skinned for leather for the tanneries is likely to be used in chicken feed clandestinely. Thus, these birds, which are not migratory, can’t look for greener pastures.
The WWF listed the bird as endangered in 2017. There are conflicting reports that the bird is slowly staging a comeback. But where would it nest and feed remains a challenge.
Another organisation claims “We Are Back,” and publishes eye-catching images of the aviary. Ever since the scavenging birds started dying out, the human beings too became more vulnerable to the harmful bacteria and diseases and the water and atmosphere became polluted. The kites that still glide in wide circles in the polluted grey skies do not include any vultures.
(This dispatch is dedicated to Mehar Dara)
The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at email@example.com