Drought, flooding cycles spell hard times even for vultures
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2000:
INDIA, MONGOLIA, KENYA––Among the most
ancient of living bird species, vultures feasted at the extinction
of the dinosaurs. Cartoonists often depict them thriving on the
demise of humanity.
But even the notoriously well-fed vultures of India
are in deep trouble now, in apparent indirect consequence of
drought and flooding cycles afflicting much of the earth.
Associated with global warming, droughts and floods
should be good for vultures, littering the land with carrion.
But Bombay Natural History Society chief scientist
Vibhu Prakash reports that the total numbers of the four main
Indian vulture species are down by 97% since 1990. The
Kanpur population has dropped from 4,000 to as few as eight.
At Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur, there were
2,000 resident vultures in 1986. Only 150 nesting pairs
remained by 1997. This year only eight vultures have even visited
Keoladeo––and none nested.
As many as 1,000 long-billed vultures used to nest on
the cliffs near Bayana Tehsil, in Bharatpur District, but just
60-70 nested this year.
The largest species, the king vulture, is known to
have nested this year only in Desert National Park, in western
The latest threat to vultures is an apparent viral disease
that attacks their livers. Poultry disease diagnosticians in
Pune, Maharashtra, are reportedly frantic to identify the virus
and find a way to fight it. As vultures are known for extraordinary
resistance to most pathogens, experts presume that anything
capable of killing them could also devastate other
species––especially hens raised in close confinement.
But vultures were in decline long before the disease
“Human persecution including shooting and poisoning
was the main cause of the disappearance of vultures from
the Indian skies,” World Wildlife Fund–India ornithologist
S.M. Satheesan opined to ANIMAL PEOPLE in November
1999, warning of the catastrophe which was then just beginning
to be recognized.
Writing soon after a cyclone hit Jagatsinghpur in
Orissa state, killing an estimated 10,000 people and 200,000
animals, Satheesan suggested that, “Vultures are capable of
bringing about a much faster and more effective pathological
clean-up of Orissa after the recent tragedy than any human
relief measure. Decaying carcasses are another disaster in the
making, as they form a haven for pathogens which could result
in major outbreaks of infectious disease. But since vultures
have been almost wiped out of existence in coastal Orissa,
nature’s incinerators and disposal squads have not been sighted
anywhere in the afflicted vicinity.”
Even under normal circumstances vultures have long
been an integral part of the Indian waste disposal system, along
with feral pigs and street dogs. And only the turtles of the
Ganges have as holy a role in consuming human remains.
“The Parsi community in India is facing an acute shortage of vultures to consume dead bodies in the Towers of
Silence,” Beauty Without Cruelty–India chairperson Diana
Ratnagar explained to ANIMAL PEOPLE. “The community
is testing new modes of disposal.”
Public education campaigns on behalf of vultures
have been started by the Bombay Natural History Society, the
Tourism and Wildlife Society of India, World Wildlife
Fund–India, and People For Animals, founded in 1982 by current
Indian minister for social justice and empowerment
Maneka Gandhi, still run from her New Delhi home.
But the most important campaign for vultures may
actually be the ongoing struggle of PFA, many other Indian
activist groups, and People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals to get the governments of India, the Indian states, and
major cities to enforce prohibitions on cattle slaughter.
Vultures may be suffering liver disease, PFA representative
Alok Tiwari recently told Vikas Vajpayee of T h e
Times of India, because the livers of carnivores tend to accumulate
chemical toxins ingested with their prey. Although the
toxins themselves may not kill the vultures, they may lower
resistance to infection––and inhibit reproduction.
Similar effects were observed in North American
birds of prey as result of DDT accumulation as long as 50 years
ago––as Rachel Carson documented in her 1962 best-selling
expose Silent Spring. But the biggest problem documented in
North America was that raptors who had ingested too much
DDT laid abnormally thin-shelled eggs, which usually broke
prematurely. Bald eagles, peregrine falcons,
and California condors all were close to
extinction when the U.S. banned DDT in 1973.
Restored to the wild through captive breeding,
free-flying California condors are only just
beginning mating behavior, but bald eagles
and peregrine falcons are now off the U.S.
endangered species list, and have recovered so
successfully that on July 25 the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service proposed to allow falconers
to take up to 5% of all peregrine hatchlings in
the 11 western states.
India didn’t ban DDT until 1989,
and didn’t ban BHS, another pesticide implicated
in toxic build-ups in carnivores’ tissues,
However, vultures thrived in India
for several decades after both pesticides came
into common use. There was not, at the time,
a leather trade on the scale of today.
“According to scientists,” wrote
Vikas Vajpayee, “chemicals used in the tanning
process remain in the flesh” that is
scraped off the skins before processing into
leather. “After the skin recovery,” Vajpayee
continued, “the flesh is given to vultures, and
this results in their death.”
The simultaneous collapse of the
Indian vulture population and explosive
growth of the leather trade may only be coincidence,
but it is a suggestive coincidence––and
both drought and flooding are rapidly increasing
the hide supply, not only by killing cattle
whose hides may be the only marketable part
of their remains, but also by encouraging desperate
farmers to sell unproductive milk cows
and malnourished oxen before the adverse
weather finishes them off.
In particular, noted the Animal
Welfare Board of India magazine A n i m a l
Citizen, “Villages in and around Pokhran [site
of the 1998 Indian nuclear test] are having a
tough time. Farmers who ploughed their fields
in the hope that rain would irrigate the land are
devastated. Others, who depend on animals,
watch helplessly as their cattle die of starvation.
The Pokhran test has demonstrated the
height of our scientific progress and wisdom,”
the AWB continued with apparent accidental
irony. “But the villagers’ economy depends
on livestock. And today these animals are
awaiting painful death in the absence of feed,
water, and management. This is not just a
story of Pokhran; this is the story of all
Rajasthan and Gujarat. We are helpless, and
Agreed Christine Townend, managing
trustee of the animal rescue charity Help In
Suffering, “Animals are dying, the desert is
spreading further and wider as further clearance
of remaining vegetation occurs, and people
are risking their lives by going by rope
down wells over 200 feet deep for a few drops
of drinking water. At our two shelters we are
helpless to face these massive problems of
India. All we can do is to fulfil our work and
hope we can contribute to the well-being of the
people and their animals, thereby limiting the
unplanned assault on nature.”
An estimated 26.2 million people
and 345,000 cattle were afflicted by drought in
Rajasthan, and 25 million people plus seven
million cattle in Gujarat, according to government
data. Nine other Indian states were also
enduring prolonged drought and crop damage
by late spring. Starting on April 28, the
Indian Navy began sending trainloads of
drinking water to the dryest regions from
Bombay. Along with the water went emergency
fodder rations. The national government
anticipated a 30% drop in grain production
this year, but told media that food
reserves were sufficient to prevent famine.
Farmers who have sold all their cattle
are reportedly committing suicide in high
numbers, leaving widows and children in even
deeper poverty and despair. News reports of
the suicides focus on the economic issues.
Unmentioned is that guilt over selling animals
who were often treated like family members
may be a contributing factor.
“Mothers of India”
The 3,000-year-old Indian religious
and cultural view that cows are sacred, as “the
Mothers of India,” is closely linked to the economic
value of cattle in a largely self-sufficient
agrarian economy. India also has a tradition,
s u t t e e, largely abandoned circa 250
years ago but still remembered, of burning
mothers who are no longer useful in feeding
families on their dead husbands’ funeral pyres.
The “Mothers of India,” as anti-cow
slaughter crusaders remind the nation, are
now suffering figurative suttee at an unprecedented
pace. Bigger breeds imported from
abroad are displacing as many as four or five
cows of native breed apiece in commercial
dairies. Mechanization is displacing oxen and
water buffalo as beasts of burden. Cattle in the
streets are now regarded by many Indians as a
menace second only to rabid dogs.
In South Delhi, for instance, a wandering
bull apparently tried to raid a roadside
vegetable stand on July 12, killing Ram
Karan, 55, and injuring at least five other
people, including a 60-year-old woman and a
five-year-old child. Raging for several hours,
the bull was finally cut down by 10 police bullets
and four more shots fired by a neighbor.
Pressured by the Delhi High Court,
the Municipal Corporation of Delhi promised
to hire more trucks to pick up stray cattle. An
estimated 35,000 cattle wander the Delhi
streets; about 12,000 a year are impounded at
gosadans, or cow-shelters.
The Delhi High Court earlier in the
same week ordered the Delhi Police to close
butcher shops caught illegally slaughtering
buffalo, sheep, and goats in the streets.
The suttee of the “Mothers of India”
reflects rapid change in the way of life of a
nation which has changed relatively little in
centuries, but is a slow holocaust for the cattle
caught up in it.
Crusade for the Rights of Animals
trustees Sanjay P and Suryaprakash G, who
concealed their full names to avoid reprisals
from cattle traffickers, in April and May followed
herds along two routes from rural Karnataka
to slaughter in Kerala, and described the
scene to Geetha Rao of The Times of India.
“About 600 to 700 cattle are put into
rows, with 10 to 15 cattle in every row,” they
began. “Each animal’s nose is tied to the next
with a rope, so that if one animal wants to lie
down, it cannot unless the others do, too. It
cannot graze for the same reason. The men
herding them have been ordered not to feed
them or give them water, as it means excess
urine and fecal matter during slaughter.”
“It’s worse during the truck journey,”
Suryaprakash G continued. “The trucks
can accommodate only 15 to 20 animals, but
three times that many are packed into them,
made to stand in rows of 10. The ropes connecting
the noses are tied to the roof of the
truck, so that the cattle are partially suspended
in the air. When the drivers negotiate curves
rashly, they swing from side to side.
Sometimes, due to exhaustion, their weight
tears their noses and they fall. The fallen animal
is trampled by the others.”
At a July 24 all-India conference
on the status of cattle in Kanchee-puram,
Maneka Gandhi and other speakers called for
closing mechanized slaughterhouses, built
with government subsidies, which kill beef for
PETA in late May claimed to
have won agreements from U.S. and European
leatherwear manufacturers and retailers J.
Crew, Liz Claiborne, Clarks, Fiorucci, and
Florsheim to stop using leather from either
India or China, where cattle handling is
reportedly also exceptionally harsh.
Within 48 hours PETA also
announced that it and 37 other U.S., Canadian,
and European animal protection organizations
had agreed to a 60-day moratorium on
seeking to ban imports of Indian leather, after
Indian Council for Leather Exports chair H.
Mohamed Hassim pledged that his organization
would take action against cruelty. Hassim
reportedly said the CLE would refrain altogether
from buying hides from the Deonar
slaughterhouse in Mumbai, identified by
investigators as among the most brutal.
Indian commerce minister Murasoli
Maran on June 11 pledged that, “Necessary
steps will be taken to put a stop to the barbaric
treatment of animals in this trade.”
But on June 19 The Times of India
indicated that Hassim was linking the PETAled
boycott pressure to the fact that the U.S.
share of the world leather market is 16%, to
just 1.7% for India.
West Bengal state animal husbandry
minister Anisur Rahman suggested to the state
assembly on July 17 that instead of killing and
exporting cattle of traditional dairy breeds, the
government-subsidized slaughterhouses should
kill and export water buffalo.
PETA resumed campaigning in late
July by telling a press conference in Malaysia,
a mostly Islamic nation which is among the
major purchasers of Indian beef, that Indian
beef does not meet the requirements of h a l a l
slaughter. Even though the killers may be
Islamic, as halal rules dictate, and may recite
the correct verse from the Koran as they cut
each animal’s throat, the meat is impure,
Islamic scholars introduced by PETA stated,
because they endure unnecessary suffering.
But the PETA claims were quickly
rejected by Mohd Nordin Mohd Nor, who
heads bothf the Malaysian Veterinary Services
Department and the Malaysia National Animal
[Letters about the treatment of
Indian cattle may be sent to Naresh Chandra,
ambassador, c/o Embassy of the Republic of
India, 2536 Massachusetts Ave., NW,
Washington, DC 20008; fax: 202-797-4693.] Mongolia
A paradox of drought is that too little
water in one area is often accompanied by
too much in another, as the rain or snow
expected in one region falls in another that
lacks the capacity to handle it. That occurred
in India, where parts of Kaziranga National
Park in eastern Assam flooded in June, for the
third time in three years, killing 20 people and
again jeopardizing 1,500 of the last 2,000 onehorned
rhinos left in the world. The flooding
also enabled poachers to easily shoot or snare
animals trapped on high ground, while rangers
struggled to get around on patrol.
Sometimes the precipitation falls
where it should, but at the wrong time.
United Nations Development Program
regional disaster coordinator Douglas
Gardner said in June that drought throughout
1999 followed by Mongolia’s harshest winter
in 30 years had killed at least 2.2 million cattle,
horses, camels, goats, and sheep.
Weakened by months of scarce food,
bitter cold, and the struggle to move about
through deep snow, nearly half of the animals
died in March, April, and May 2000, as winter
Had the killing snows fallen as rain,
in August 1999, instead of hitting a month
later, there might have been no catastrophe.
But the natural disaster was made
worse by human behavior. The collapse of the
formerly subsidized Mongolian industrial sector
threw thousands of people out of work during
the early 1990s. Many tried to return to
old rural ways. Land that had sustained small
numbers of hunters and herders, however,
was easily exhausted. Killing furbearing
predators to sell pelts brought plagues of burrowing
rodents who devastated grain crops.
The 147,000 people who raised
cashmere goats and other livestock in 1990
became 450,000 by 1999, with about 40 million
livestock. There might not have been
enough forage and water for all even without
the “dzud,” as Mongolians call the sequence
of a drought year followed by a bitter winter.
About 20% of the Mongol population
of 2.7 million now face food scarcity,
Horn of Africa
Spring 2000 drought also caused
nomadic herders and their families to starve by
the hundreds and perhaps thousands in the
Horn of Africa, says the U.N. World Food
Program. At risk were 7.7 million Ethiopians,
2.7 million northern Kenyans, 425,000 people
in Somalia, 350,000 people in Eritrea, and
150,000 people in Djbouti.
Each suffering person reflected the
loss of half a dozen or more animals.
“Three years of sparse rains have
killed virtually all the cattle from whom
Ethiopia’s ethnic Somali herders draw meat,
milk, and life,” wrote Ellen Kickmeyer of
Associated Press, from Hadawe, Ethiopia.
“Lush years immediately before the drought
tempted many to trade their traditional camels
for cattle, less hardy but more productive.”
Compounding the disaster were forest
fires. By destroying groundcover, the fires
reduced the capacity of the Ethiopian soil to
hold rain when some finally did fall.
Most of the nations caught in the
drought had already been destabilized by years
of civil war and brigandry. Kenya, by contrast,
remains the most stable and affluent
nation in the region––but since the international
boycott of tourism to South Africa ended
with apartheid almost a decade ago, it has had
significant competition for the wildlife viewing
dollar. Corruption has also bled Kenya.
Now the drought is bringing new challenges.
More Somali poachers menace the Kenyan
national parks. More park neighbors, struggling
to survive on overgrazed land, are cutting
fences, feeding their herds on the greenery
reserved for wild animals and then complaining
when elephants, lions, and other
species come out at night to raid crops, trample
huts, and sometimes eat people.
In May and June, Masai and
Samburu herders invaded private ranches
owned by people of European descent. At
least one shoot-out resulted when police tried
to evict the invaders. Kenyan president Daniel
Arap Moi tried to calm rising tensions by
explaining to the landholders that the invasions
were acts of desperation, not aggression,
unlike the politically motivated occupations of
ranches underway simultaneously in
Zimbabwe. Eventually several hundred
Samburu with their several thousand cattle
were relocated into the Ontulili section of the
Mount Kenya Forest––to the certain detriment
of the resident wildlife.
Earlier, in April, a prolonged
drought broke in the Turkana region of Kenya
with flash floods that killed more than 5,000
cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys.
During the Kenyan drought,
Mozambique suffered March floods that
“resulted in a catastrophe of Biblical proportions
for the region’s animals,” according to a
World Society for the Protection of Animals
field assessment. The casualties included
about 150,000 livestock of various species,
Runoff filled Lake Kariba in
Zimbabwe, forcing rescuers to organize a
major relief effort to feed wild animals who
were caught on newly created islands.
Fleeing the flooding, an estimated
600 elephants trooped from Mozambique into
Linwonde National Park in Malawi, where
they began competing for habitat with the resident
Giving a dam
The combination of drought here
and flooding there may build new impetus
toward completing the Narmada dam complex
in India and other water projects in Asia and
Africa which have long been stalled by opposition
for a combination of environmental and
The chief environmental concern is
that mega-dams and reservoirs encourage
development and alter habitat, possibly jeopardizing
endangered species. The chief
sociopolitical concern is that dams and reservoirs
displace large numbers of people.
But global habitat has already been
altered: climatologists forecast only greater
weather instability through the next several
decades, as the annual warming and cooling
cycles become more intense.
Drought and flooding are already
displacing millions of the world’s poorest people
And nothing jeopardizes endangered
species more than starving and desperate people,
looking for food and shelter, seeing few
opportunities more lucrative or accessible than
the chance to poach or graze their livestock on
a wildlife reserve.