Why the book?
Addressing the relationship between the human species and the natural world has never been so pressing. It is vital that there is a collective re-orientation of attitudes concerning nature and our place as but one part of a very complex network of systems on this earth.
Nowhere is this more exemplified than in our relationship with vultures. Human-vulture interactions can be used to paint a picture of human attitudes towards the natural world more generally, and the current situation for vultures is extreme.
Vulture populations worldwide are in rapid decline. Many species are now critically endangered as a direct result of human actions. They are often seen in a negative light, associated with death and bad omens and suffer poisoning, and persecution as a result. They are often disregarded, as many plants and animals are, in the human quest for greater profit and growth. One example of this on the Indian sub-continent is the use of diclofenac painkiller in cattle which is leading to a catastrophic decline in vulture numbers.
Tens of millions of vultures used to be present across the Indian sub-continent. As a by-product of the large numbers of livestock which were reared across South Asia there was an abundance of animal carcasses which became the principal food source for the resident species. Vultures were so abundant that the Parsi religion in India and Buddhist communities on the Tibetan plateau utilized these birds for sky burials in order to cleanly and efficiently dispose of human bodies.
However, a survey in 2007 indicated that the numbers of oriental white-backed vultures had declined by a staggering 99.9% over the preceding 15 years. Long-billed and slender-billed vultures had decreased by 97% over the same period. Surveys across Nepal and Pakistan indicate that vultures have declined at similar rates across the whole of south Asia, and within Pakistan both resident species are on the edge of extinction.
For several years researchers battled to understand what might be the cause of these deaths. The breakthrough came when it was recognized that the class of painkiller known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs had been linked to kidney failures and cases of visceral gout when some of these drugs were given to birds. Extensive research established the same correlation between gout and diclofenac in birds from India and Nepal. It was determined that diclofenac was responsible for the vulture population crash.
Sections of the book will include the following:
Details how the book came about, beginning with the Jamie’s collaboration with the British Library Archive collections during which he came across a Towers of Silence manuscript and Edwardian era photographs of vultures, both of which aroused his interest and inspired to do more research.
This section will also cover Jamie’s relationship with the RSPB and Birdlife International, with meetings at the Rutland Bird Fair and with Cambridge University ethno-ornithology professors, during the planning phase of this project.
This section will briefly touch upon the evolutionary tree of vultures, before recounting some of the earliest human-vulture encounters by exploring archaeological evidence such as cave paintings, totemic iconography and hieroglyphs.
Here Jamie will examine old world vulture species, focusing on specific, unique or unusual instances of cultural significance, past and present, as well as looking at myths/folklore from indigenous populations.
Where possible, this will include Jamie’s account of experiencing cultural customs first hand. For example, vividly depict the witnessing of a sky burial where photographs of the experience would not be permitted.
Examining new world vulture species of North and South America. Similar to the old world section, this will focus on unique or unusual instances of cultural significance, past and present, as well as looking at myth/folklore from indigenous populations.
From revered to reviled:
Locating the point(s) in the development of human culture when our attitude towards vultures changed from respect, and even reverence, to fear, targeted persecution and willful disregard. Exploring the possible causes of this shift in attitude and tracing its path to the current state of human-vulture relations, suggesting that this represents a microcosm of the human-nature relationship generally.
This will be achieved by combing through historical archive collections held at libraries and museums across the world – looking for references to vultures in original historical documents, diaries, records etc will be arranged chronologically and reproduced where permitted and translated into English where necessary.
Impact and consequences:
This section will look at the impact of the current state of affairs on other aspects of life on earth – human, animal and plant.
Jamie will draw on data gathered by conservation organisations and project this on the future to illustrate the human impact on vultures. He will also look at the impact of declining vulture numbers on the whole network of ecosystems in which they play a key role, including those systems of which the human species is a part.
As with the previous chapter, these findings will be used as a commentary on how this is exemplifies the human attitude towards the natural world more generally.
This section will highlight some of the initiatives currently underway to bring back the cultural importance of vultures at a local level. For example, the ‘vulture restaurant’ in a small Nepalese village which is encouraging the local community to appreciate vultures’ vital role in sanitation, or the education initiatives taking place in Sub-Saharan Africa aimed at preventing poaching and poisoning of vultures. Jamie will also look at the projects that are being set up to try to encourage farmers to stop using diclofenac.
Jamie will also spend time at the vulture-breeding centre in Pinjore, North India, working closely with vulture experts and observing vulture behaviours and social structures. Here he will follow vultures from hatching to release into the wild.
In this final chapter Jamie will reflect on his experience of researching and writing about vultures in such an extensive and wide-ranging way. He will ponder on what we can learn from his research, shedding light on this enigmatic bird, the complex history and relationship between humans and vultures, and what this says, if anything about our respective roles in the infinitely intertwined and delicate web of ecosystems that make up life on earth.