The Mystery of the Vanishing Vultures

James Lovelock proposed the Gaia Hypothesis in the mid-80’s. Lovelock, a mathematician and an engineer, had proposed a model of the global ecosystem which maintains itself homeostatically; in other words, whenever one part of the system goes out of whack, another part of the system fills in. That, at least, is the basic idea of how I understand the Gaia Hypothesis; the notion that the Earth is some sort of huge "superorganism" is a bit of a stretch for the Gaia hypothesis, and there certainly are no mystical overtones to be inferred except by some New Age groups.

Something I find very interesting, though, is the role that the politics and culture of our own species can play in the ecosystem, beyond the obvious technological one. For example: in the Indian subcontinent, cultural, religious, political, and emotional factors may be contributing to an ecological disaster more than any technology.

Vultures play an undeniably vital role in the ecology of the Indian sub-continent: they eat dead things, including dead people. Without the vultures, dead and rotting animals would pose a major health hazard in the humid and hot conditions of India. In some areas, people practice a form of air burial of the dead, in which they place their dead on a platform, and the vultures come along and eat the remains. It’s surprisingly hygenic.

But now the vultures of India are dying; and no one knows why.

It has been estimated that since the early 1990’s, nearly 90% of the population of two of India’s most populous vulture species has died out completely. Where flocks of vultures used to darken the skies near the Towers of Silence in northern India, now very few are seen. Such a huge drop off in population is pretty much an ecological catastrophe; the extinction of any species is a cause for sadness, but this extinction — which it looks like it might be — could cause massive disruptions in the ecosystem of the Indian subcontinent. Rat populations, without the vultures to keep them in check, are exploding, as are feral dogs. The rat and dog populations are causing major health problems in many parts of India.

The usual suspects have been examined. Toxicology tests show no environmental toxins or poisons present in the bloodstream of the autopsied birds. And there are no bacteria present. And yet, the die-off shows signs of being a disease of some sort: vultures get sick, displaying lethargy and malaise for something like thirty days before they simply die. Indians report seeing birds literally fall down dead in flight. This mystery illness seems to have an incredibly high mortality rate among the vultures.

And it’s spreading as well. Vultures in neighboring Pakistan are becoming ill as well, with the same symptoms and the same massive die-off.

Neither India nor Pakistan have the resources or the equipment to deal with the crisis, or even to study the corpses of the vultures in the depth that’s required, and, as NPR reports, getting the tissue samples out of either country is next to impossible. India is wary of "bio-prospectors", who take genetic material from India, patent it in the United States, and do not share the rewards; while Pakistan, since September 11, is wary of allowing scientists to take the three-foot tall steel canisters which carry the carcasses onto international flights.

So I guess I have to say that I’m fascinated by the fact that this crisis, while probably natural in origin, appears to be exacerbated by human greed and human fear and human apathy.

It’s a scary prospect; I can’t think of any human diseases that have such a high transmission rate coupled with such a high mortality rate; the most fatal human illness that I know of is rabies, with a 95% mortality rate for untreated cases. Even ebola and smallpox have higher survivability rates; and rabies is awfully difficult to contract.

At one time the vulture population in India was so dense that the sky was dark with them; now it’s possible to go for days without seeing a single one. If the two species vanish, then the ecosystem will recovery; the Parsi will begin cremating their dead after millennia of sky burial. I don’t believe humanity is to blame for this crisis, but I do think that some of our human tendencies towards fear and greed are hampering the recovery from it. And because of that, I can’t help but wonder about some of the other long-term hidden costs of business as usual.

And that, basically, is what I’m writing about. Fear and distrust have become business as usual in our post-9/11 world. Perhaps, in some vague ill-defined way, there is some good in that. But the bigger consequences are ecological instability and cultural degradation; are these prices that, in the long run, we can afford to pay?

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