The first time I saw a vulture up close was in India. It was not in the woods or near a carcass, but on the side of the Pathankot-Dharamsala road, casually perched on a stump in all its height, like a hitchhiker waiting for a ride. This vulture especially impressed my mother, who, when asked what she thought of India, would talk about its amazing birds, and go on to describe the vulture. Considering India has many much more colorful and nimble birds, and reading the expressions on the faces of our Indian interlocutors, I would invariably try to steer the conversation towards the flocks of parrots that populated our garden, or the Paradise flycatchers that gracefully trailed their long white tails.
In Tibet, I see vultures all the time, some quite close up, and have learned about their habits and the relationship with man. One of the Ritoma village sky burial grounds is not far from our house, actually on the next hill, and when we see a multitude of vultures circling high up in the sky, we know someone has died. From a distance, we see a monk or two a little off from the scene, specks of red, and people busying about with the vultures crowded in a circle around them, waiting for their treat. Tibetan vultures are used to being attended to, and will not feed unless their ‘food’ has been properly prepared; this means opening up the corpse and separating the flesh from bones. Vultures are there to perform a function. They are respected for it, and monks and relatives will scan the horizon, breathing a sign of relief at their approach. An offering not taken is seen as a bad sign.
Older nomads often complain of the younger generation’s laziness for leaving their dead animals unattended. In the old days, the carcass would be opened, inviting the vultures and ridding the area of the stench of rotten flesh. When they had finished, the owner would collect the animal’s skin and process it. Nothing was left to waste. Two years ago, when hundreds of sheep died in the spring, weakened by a harsh winter and the previous year’s foot and mouth disease, the hills were strewn with carcasses. Left untouched by their owners, they were shunned by the vultures.
This year, the vulture scene was right by our house. A sheep died on the hill and its owner invited the vultures. They were enormous. Ivy, the guesthouse dog, who had given birth to her litter in a nearby marmot hole, managed to drag part of the carcass inside as well as the sheepskin to keep her little family warm.