» THE WINGED SIN-EATERS: Vultures & the Vital Importance of Scavengers

by Brian Awehali

Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of earth, motherhood and fertility, played a redemptive role in the religious practices of Meso-American civilization: At the end of life, an individual was allowed to confess hir misdeeds to this deity, and according to legend she would cleanse the supplicant’s soul by “eating the filth”…

As they ride the wind, vultures seek dead things, not dying things, using a sense of smell far more highly developed than any other bird’s. They can detect a dead mouse under leaves from 200 feet up. They are discriminating, preferring corpses between two and four days dead….Vultures, whose name comes from vellere, Latin for to tear, begin their eating at vulnerable spots on the carcass—the anus and eyes. All that being said, you really wouldn’t want to live in a world without them.

A truly fascinating article in the Virginia Quarterly Review, by Meera Subramian, and with gorgeous photos like the one below, by Ami Vitale, goes into a lot of detail about the vital role of vultures and scavengers, and the alarming decline of their species on the Indian subcontinent.

Vultures scavenging human remains left at the burning ghats on the banks of rivers in India – Ami Vitale / Corbis

As the article explains,

Vulture numbers in the region had plummeted by 97 percent—the most catastrophic avian population decline since buckshot wiped out the passenger pigeon. Just fifteen years ago, there were at least fifty million vultures on the Indian subcontinent; today, according to Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, less than sixty thousand individuals of the three species survive in the wild—and a newly-completed Indian-sponsored census, the first in three years, is yielding even more distressing results…

Carcass dump in IndiaVultures, who are a kind of sin-eater, and who used to pick clean carcass dumps in India like the one depicted to the right, were dying, it turns out, from chemicals farmers were giving to livestock:

The three species of Gyps vultures were dying from ingesting livestock carcasses treated with diclofenac, a mild painkiller akin to aspirin or ibuprofen. After taking it themselves for decades, Indians began using it in the early 1990s to ease the aches of their farm animals’ cracked hooves and swollen udders. For reasons that remain unknown, vultures that feed on animals treated with diclofenac develop visceral gout—untreatable kidney failure that causes a crystallized bloom across their internal organs. Death occurs within weeks … India must find a way to restore its prime scavenger or risk untold human health consequences. Vultures once rid the landscape of diseases such as tuberculosis, brucellosis, and foot-and-mouth. Their strong stomach acids and high body temperatures allow them to ingest an anthrax-infected carcass and suffer no ill effects. The fear is that with vultures gone, and the human handling of dead livestock increasing, that these diseases could spread among both animal and human populations.

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Vultures also play a vital role in Tibetan Buddhist death rituals. Resources are scarce at high altitudes, and disposing of bodies presents significant challenges. Tibetan “sky burials” involve an undertaker cutting apart and exposing a corpse on a sacred ledge, where highly efficient vultures then consume and redistribute the remains:

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