A campaign against Griffon vultures has been gathering steam in France after the body of a hiker, who had fallen off a cliff to her death, was found consumed by the vultures.
“There were only bones, clothes and shoes left on the ground,” said Major Didier Pericou, of the gendarmerie. “They took 45 to 50 minutes to eat the body.”
The news of a dead human being consumed by vultures has been broadcast all around the world, sending shudders through many who have read about it.
Griffon vultures are a protected species. Their role in the natural order, which is to consume dead bodies as quickly as possible, has been disrupted by human fear and by a European law that requires farmers to burn the bodies of dead animals.
As a result, and in an effort not to be starved into extinction, the vultures have become more aggressive, and farmers are complaining that they’re carrying off small animals who are still alive.
In response to that, as is so often the case, a full-scale campaign is now in motion to kill off the vultures once and for all.
Thousands of miles away, in South Asia, other species of these magnificent birds have been sliding toward extinction. Over a span of 15 years, the introduction of the drug Diclofenac for use as an anti-inflammatory for cattle wreaked havoc on vultures. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, vultures suffered a 97 percent decline in population numbers:
Due to the strength of the drug and the tendency of vultures to feed in large groups, research has shown that just one in 760 livestock carcasses needs to contain diclofenac to cause the population decline that has been observed. Despite a manufacturing ban in Pakistan, Nepal and India and a ban on its sale and veterinary use in India, there are concerns that this drug is still affecting vulture populations in Asia.
Over the past five years, however, and with more regulation and a manufacturing ban of Diclofenac in some of the surrounding countries, the vultures have been recovering.
That’s good news, too, for many of the people whose lives and cultures are rooted in the Himalayas, because the vultures play a key role in the end-of-life rituals of many of these mountain cultures, where burial (in hard, rocky soil) and cremation (involving lots of wood) are not practical.
A ritual of return in which we commune with the other animals and take our place in the cycles of life and death.For more than a thousand years, rather than being upset at the idea of being consumed by vultures, many communities in Tibet and Nepal have embraced what are known as sky burials.
Sky burial begins with a priest cutting the human corpse into small pieces that are placed near the top of a mountain, exposing the body ritually to birds of prey.
When the flesh has been eaten, the bones are pounded down into a pulp and mixed with barley flower and tea or other ingredients, and put back out as food for the birds.
Many of the people of these communities understand this celestial burial as assisting the dead person in her ascent to heaven with both soul and body.
In our own modern and “civilized” world, people following the story of the dead hiker on French TV, or reading about it in the Times of London or the New York Daily News, tend to find the whole notion somewhat gruesome and shocking – maybe frightening, too. All of which speaks to our sense of increasing separation from who and what we are as part of the natural world.
For those who practice sky burial, however, it is surely a wondrous ritual of return, in which we commune with the other animals, take our place in the cycles of life and death, participate visibly in the transformation of death into life, and restore the balance by becoming food for other animals as we have taken them as food for ourselves.
As one who hikes regularly among the cliffs and canyons of the Southwest, I’d like to think that if I ever happen to fall off a cliff, any vultures in the vicinity (including the magnificent California condors being reintroduced to the region) will get to me before the authorities and the folks from the funeral parlors manage to find me!
Here are two videos of sky burials. First from Discovery:
And this short one, titled Celestial Burial in Tibetan Style: