Walking under the shade of Sal trees, he glanced at his watch and realized he was running late. 'Anna! Off to see the crooked birds, haha!?' an echoing laugh came from the trees. He looked past few rows and saw it was Aswini Thambi, his friend. Subbaiah Bharathidasan continued to walk but his mind drifted off thinking, does Aswini even know the importance of this species of birds? The bird that is responsible for a balanced ecosystem. Maybe he does know and it’s only out of human habit that he ridicules the vulture based on its gawky looks and bald head. Or is it because we marginalize sweepers and labourers who clean and restore the hygiene in our society, just as a vulture does, and do not give them their due respect?
Crossing a tall tree, he recalls the first time he met an ornithologist who told him that vultures like to nest in tall trees. An amateur bird watcher in his younger days, he was in awe of the things he was learning about the vulture. A vulture does not hunt live prey, but feeds on decomposing carcasses infected with diseases such as anthrax, cholera, botulinum toxin, and rabies. He is the silent sweeper of our ecosystem. He wondered how a bird could digest such poisonous waste and yet survive.
The ornithologist also told him that vultures evolved in a way that they are able to digest decomposing carcasses. He became curious and started reading about vultures. Subbaiah came to know that vultures not only have an environmental significance, but they play an important role in burial rituals in several cultures too. Environmental conditions in the Tibetan plateau do not allow for ground burial, so the deceased are left on hill tops under the sky, to be ingested by vultures. Similarly, Parsis following the Zoroastrian faith believe a corpse is a host for decay.
Millions of years of evolution have made vultures adapt to turn nature’s poisonous waste into food. Unfortunately, these birds have fallen prey to a man-made poison. Vultures were dying as they fed on carcasses of livestock treated with Diclofenac, a lethal painkiller.
Subbaiah Bharathidasan set on a journey that was long, but he started with small steps. He first created awareness to prevent forest fires and taught local communities to identify and protect vulture nesting areas. With his NGO Arulagam, he established captive breeding centres for vultures in India with partnerships with the Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) and persuaded forest officials to not bury the carcasses of elephants or gaur found in the forest but to leave them as food for the vultures.
Local heroes like Subbaiah are on a mission which may seem is meant only to save the vultures but the reality is they are in a mission to leave behind a safe and green environment for the generations to come.
To know more about the NGO Arulagam, please visit www.arulagam.org