Vultures are cross-culturally uncharismatic—with their featherless gray heads, their pronounced brows that make for permanent scowls, their oversized blunt beaks capable of splintering bones. They vomit when threatened and reek of death...

But for all of human history, vultures served India faithfully. They scoured the countryside, clearing fields of dead cows and goats. They soared over the cities in search of road kill and picked at the scattered refuse of the region’s ever-expanding populace. For a subcontinent where religious and cultural mores restrict the handling of the dead, human and animal alike—Muslims won’t eat an animal that hasn’t been killed according to halal; Hindus won’t consume cows under any circumstances—vultures were a natural and efficient disposal system.

Fifteen years ago there were more than 50 million vultures on the Indian subcontinent; today there are, at most, 60,000, and many scientists think they will be altogether gone soon. Meera Subramanian has a fascinating story at the Virginia Quarterly Review about the causes of the decline and its consequences.

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