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A glimpse through the window of a tower of silence

Before giving most of my creative energy to developing Biodiversity PEEK lessons, I hand-built Life Contained . . . , a ceramic sculpture series. The pieces are unapologetically educational (I just can’t help it!), present bare facts on vanishing, overlooked species and are figuratively and literally contained by our human relationships to them.  This is a view through a window in the piece “Gyps bengalensis in Parsi Tower of Silence” and what follows are some facts:

Long seen as intermediaries between life and death, vultures have a long association with the divine in India and Egypt. The Parsi people have, since 600 BC, built Towers of Silence to dispose of their beloved dead through a last ritual of purification. Their culture and religion, with roots in Persia, does not allow burial or fire. So, for centuries vultures have been visiting the circular towers where the dead lay, cleaning their bones within hours.  Now, Parsi corpses linger, rotting, melting, and stinking because the vultures are essentially gone.

Until the 1990’s vultures in India, including the white-rumped vulture, Gyps bangalensis, were so ubiquitous that their commonness made them invisible . . . overlooked.  Their important work of cleaning the bones of the dead, not just humans but wildlife and livestock, made people look away. . . appreciative but disgusted. In the early ‘90’s cattle owners began giving an anti-inflammatory, Diclovenic, to their animals.  It stays in the flesh of the dead and all three Gyps species of vulture die within weeks of ingesting a poisoned carcass. In a single decade Gyps numbers dropped from around 50 million to just 50 thousand. Remember the passenger pigeon in the U.S.? Their loss, via buckshot, took over a century.

Ah, but who really cares if we lose our vultures?  They’re gross, right? Well, in each year prior to the ‘90’s, India’s vultures were eating about 12 million tons of rotting flesh. Guess what’s filling the niche now that these super-efficient scavengers are almost extinct? Where there were once about 50 thousand feral dogs in India there are now up to 50 million.  Feral dogs, unlike vultures, also attack the living: wildlife, livestock, and people, especially children. Well over a third of current human global rabies deaths occur now in India, most from dog bites.  Before I give you more facts, here’s the top view of my sculpture that houses a full circle of individually-sculpted, shrouded vulture corpses. The wing is hinged to lift up and the vultures are unattached to the tower.

Gyps bengalensis in Parsi Tower of Silence (top view)
Gyps bengalensis in Parsi Tower of Silence (top view)

I don’t think that financial sense should be our main motivating factor in the preservation of biodiversity, but I just have to share this all-too-common conservation scenario. The estimated cost to India due indirectly and directly to the loss of their common vultures in the past decade is about 34 Billion USDollars. The loss of natural services done for free by vultures and other natural scavengers costs the global economy more than 6 Trillion USD each YEAR.  That’s about 11% of the world’s GDP. Contrast that with the knowledge that conservation of species threatened with extinction could be done with only 76 Billion.

What’s the state of conservation in India? It seems to be namesake only as there are many restrictions. The largest conservation organization in India is over a century old yet has only about 5000 members. Governmentally, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests budget goes solely to one species: tigers.  They get the lion’s share (sorry, but come on); all $27 million USD a year.  It pays to be big, beautiful, and furry. Vultures in India get 326 thousand USD in annual support from the citizens.

I think about how there were once so many vultures swirling in the skies in India that children were practically blind to them. Now, India’s children are growing up in a world where the absence of vultures is just normal.  This kind of thing keeps me up at night and in tears at times.

A couple end notes:

Fact Check: I got my numbers second-hand from two recent, remarkable, and well-researched books: Meera Subramanian’s A River Runs Again & Tony Juniper’s What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?  Both books cite the original sources and I highly recommend them.

Coincidence: After finishing my one-wing sculpture I learned that in an old Indian myth the vulture god, Jatayu, tries to stop a demon from kidnapping Sita, an avatar of the goddess Lakshmi.  The vulture god is able to deflect the demon’s arrows but is ultimately killed when the demon cuts off one of his wings with a sword and takes Sita.

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