The vultures circle lower, their wings casting shadows over the river valley. Despite the lofty height of the lesser Himalayan hills, they remain out of reach, making wide circles on invisible thermal currents. I used to sit on the water tank above our field station and stare up at their feathery forms. Heatwaves shimmered over the ground, but up in the blue sky, the vultures were untouchable and free.
I started seeing a trio of vultures – slender-billed, but at the time I barely knew how to identify them – near the field station, usually roosting on the highest branches of the oaks. They paid me no attention, and as I was quite alive, I passed beneath their tree safely. Vultures are scavengers, playing one of the most important roles in the ecosystem. They consume carrion, preventing the spread of zoonotic diseases and contributing to religious practices such as sky burial. In the high Himalayas and Tibetan plateau, monks offer their bodies to vultures as a final act of sacrifice when they pass on. This continues the food web and returns their bodies to nature.
I observed vultures intently while roaming in the Himalayas, and part of my field experience included documenting vulture presence and activity in the Himalayan foothills and Siwaliks, the mountains that form the barrier between the high Himalayan peaks and the Gangetic plains. When we visited Rajaji National Park on our way to Haridwar, our jeep bounced through the ever-changing vegetation and ecosystems within the park, and I kept my eyes peeled for these large raptors. And I was in luck – we spotted multiple vulture flocks in the park! The greatest delight was spotting a small flock of white-rumped vultures at a carcass of a sambar doe. Our jeep staked out by the doe in hopes that the big cat responsible for the kill would return to the site, but I drank in the sight of the vultures tearing into the carcass, their hooked beaks efficiently scooping up even the toughest meat and tossing it in the air to swallow. Black kites and the occasional crow hopped around the edge of the carcass hopefully, but vultures are large and aggressive when feeding. Smaller scavengers had no chance.
Soon, another scavenger appeared to take its chances with the sambar carcass. A golden jackal. Jackals are common across India, and much like vultures, have gained a poor reputation thanks to their behavioural ecology. I have always liked these golden-brown canids with their pricked ears and curious eyes. Jackals are active through the day, and a mating pair lived near the field station. The Bhutia dogs disliked the jackals and chased them away with booming barks, causing these shy canids to take shelter within our compound in the late evening. The watchmen ignored them, and I spent hours watching them frolic by the moonlight when the night grew still. Jackals are playful, and the pair was young and sprightly. The jackal we saw in Rajaji looked warier and thinner, possibly due to the density of vultures in the park. It snapped at a vulture, and then darted back a few steps to avoid the frustrated bird’s sharp beak. The vulture danced on its stumpy legs, looking like an ugly tap dancer, and returned to the carcass, while the jackal licked its lips and sat on its haunches, destined to wait until the birds were ready to relinquish their prize.
Scavengers fill in the ecological gaps that predators and prey leave behind. All living things must die, and when death swoops in, it opens the door for others to survive. Some opportunists scan from the skies, while others prefer to wait and watch in the shadows.