Animals aren’t capable of considering aesthetics. For all wild creatures, obtaining sufficient food trumps any other consideration. In what sort of location the food might be found is of zero consequence. Getting it is all that is important.
So refuse tips are very often attractive places for birds. Indeed, what could be better; a mix of human throwaway detritus that includes waste food and a plethora of insects that feed off it into the bargain. Not only do those birds that delight in eating dead meat – the carrion-eaters such as kites, eagles or crows – get a feed, but also so do some much smaller representatives of the avian world that make a meal of insects. Pretty little wagtails for instance. A scruffy refuse tip can be bird nirvana.
In Mali, I once watched flocks of huge Marabou Storks – as tall as a small person -gorging on some of the distinctly putrid contents of refuse dumps. The bird guideblogs show these storks as rather svelte; tall, grey-backed birds with red heads although they do possess a less than svelte, fleshy-red throat pouch that hangs down in front of their chests. In reality they look pretty ugly, dirty with dust and a few feathers missing courtesy of fights between birds to get the best refuse pickings. And that pouch looks rather like a lop-sided and grossly distended pair of testicles swinging from side to side as they move. I can’t say that Marabous are the most attractive birds I’ve ever seen.
British refuse tips, a once familiar feature of our countryside and suburbs, are now rapidly, and thankfully, disappearing as we recycle more and more of our refuse or use it in other ways. But they were once a haven for gulls and other birds too. You could spot such a refuse tip from several kilometres away. There was always a characteristic white cloud of gulls in the air above it. And those gulls were clearly finding it easier to grab some rotting, tipped-out food than search under the seashore shingle for a few tough cockles and mussels that have to be tugged out of their shells before they can be consumed.
The problem for bird fanatics is that, except in much of Africa and the Middle East, most refuse tips are not open to the public or were long ago closed down. Those still in use are often fenced off to keep people out and prying eyes at a distance. Not the safest of places to explore courtesy of disease-carrying rats or rabies-carrying feral dogs. Who would want to visit them? Who indeed?
And so it was that I found myself in Mumbai, the business and entertainment capital of India. I was there to research a feature for The Telegraph Magazine about the enormous and rapid decline of vultures in India (and its neighbouring countries) and how that was impacting on the Parsis who traditionally encouraged vultures to eat their dead. With its 14 million or so inhabitants and a reputed 5 million street dwellers who have no more than the clothes they stand up in – and sometimes pitifully few of those – this teeming city is in the top ten of the most populous in the world. If it’s the street-food kiosks along Chowpatty Beach, the brassware at Chor Bazaar, or the history of the famous Taj hotel you’re interested in, Mumbai has tour guides happy to help you negotiate this sardine can of a city. Even tours of Dharavi, one of the city’s larger slums – the one made famous by Danny Boyle’s 2008 film, Slumdog Millionaire – are increasingly popular. But there is one place in Mumbai that no tour company or guide will take you, one that is sealed off from prying foreign eyes – that is the putrid Deonar refuse tip, the city’s main refuse dumping ground.
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Mumbai’s Deonar tip covers over 140 ha of land and is piled with stinking, decomposing garbage as high as a seven storey building. Each and every day it receives 5,500 tonnes of refuse, 600 tonnes of silt from the city’s drains and 25 tonnes of medical waste. Between March and June the daily amount of silt dumped there rises to more than 9,000 tonnes because of drain cleaning in advance of the annual monsoon. Come the monsoon, horrendous pollution runs off it into streams that appear out of its rotting bowels. That water pours down the Thane Creek and out into the Arabian Sea, polluting its inshore waters. The largest open refuse tip in Asia, it has been in operation since 1927 when the British started dumping here on land that was then on the city’s outskirts. But Mumbai has grown. Today, urban slums crowd up against the southern and western edges of this monstrous pile. Health problems blight the shanty communities around it.