Vulture Awareness Day
To commemorate Vulture Awareness Day and to mark the launch later this month of my next book, I am starting a new occasional series of essays. This one focuses on the vulture crisis that began in India and now threatens entire populations of vultures across Asia, Africa and Europe.
In October 2018 I visited the Gir Forest in Gujarat, India where I was met by Manisha Rajput, my guide and fixer for the research I wanted to do for my book Framing Nature – conservation and culture. Gir is home to the world’s only remaining Asiatic lions. From the brink of extinction a century ago, the lions are making a sustained comeback, leading to daily encounters with the Maldhari people and their livestock. With Manisha’s help I spoke to women, men and children as they explained how the occasional loss of livestock and even the rare cases of injury to people, led not to recrimination, only an increased determination to coexist. I was there to report on this extraordinary relationship, and found that vultures also have a part to play.
Originally the Maldhari were nomads from Sindh and Rajasthan, and other parts of Gujarat. They eventually settled in the grasslands of Saurashtra and Kutch and came to be known by their tribal name after settling in and around the formerly more extensive forested lands of the Junagarh district of Gujarat. Although they are a recognised tribe, with certain rights enshrined in law, the name Maldhari is in reality an occupational term – keeper (dhari) of livestock (mal) – that can apply to people from a variety of castes and communities. The community is scattered through the Gir, in homesteads called neses, typically occupied by one large extended family or two or three couples and their children.
Across India, dairy herds – buffalos or cows – and the millions of street-cows return from their pasturings and wanderings back to their villages, neses and city byres during a gentle hour when the dust kicked up by their hooves is tinted by the colours of the setting sun. It is known as cow-dust hour, and we chose that time to visit Vaniavav, a nes that was home to Hardabhai, his son Meraman, Meraman’s wife, Janaben, Mahesh, their son, and Mina, Payal and Jalpa, their daughters.
To continue reading, click here for the full downloadable essay