India: Vultures still in peril as farmers flout toxic drug ban
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India: Vultures still in peril as farmers flout toxic drug ban

Over a third of Indian pharmacies continue to sell diclofenac to livestock farmers. Manufacture and sale of this drug for veterinary use has been banned in India since 2006 because of its toxicity to critically endangered vultures.

But farmers are still illegally purchasing human diclofenac to treat their cattle. Diclofenac was held responsible for bringing three South Asian species of Gyps vultures to the brink of extinction. The population crash was first noted in the late 1990s. Nepal and Pakistan also banned diclofenac in 2006. Further measures in India, in 2008, placed additional restrictions on diclofenac for animal use, with contravention punishable with imprisonment.

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Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre at Pinjore, Haryana, India, March 2005. Long-billed vultures (Gyps indicus) fighting over goat carcass in the colony aviary. Photo: BNHS Photo Library

Researchers visited veterinary pharmacies in 11 states between November 2007 and June 2010. All pharmacies were in cities and towns and likely to be legally registered and managed by qualified pharmacists. They asked if they could buy non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for treating cattle. Diclofenac was recorded in 36 per cent of the shops. The study was conducted by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Birds (RSPB) and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).

Only in May this year, researchers had reported that the ban on diclofenac was showing its first signs of progress. The study had showed that the proportion of cattle carcasses in India contaminated with the drug declined by over 40 per cent between 2006 and 2008. The concentration of the drug in contaminated animals also fell.

But, if pharmacies are still selling diclofenac, does it mean that the campaign has not worked fully? Chris Bowden, RSPB’s International Species Recovery Officer & SAVE Programme Manager, says, “Very little veterinary diclofenac is available now. So in this sense, the measures taken so far are being respected. However, the unfortunate loophole is that human diclofenac is far too easily accessible and affordable for vets to obtain, and for suppliers to provide. So the campaign is not working because of this, despite the important steps taken so far.”

Five years is a good time to look at how the conservation action has had an effect. How do you look at the shape of things right now? Says Bowden, “I do see some real progress, and the 40 per cent reduction in diclofenac levels reported in a PlosOne paper recently represents a positive trend, but sadly it is still a long way short of levels low enough for the vultures to recover. I feel there is still a huge way to go to prevent the extinction of these natural cleaners, culturally important and magnificent birds.”

What about the future? Bowden looks at it this way, “The most immediate step that is entirely practical, is to legislate and prevent any injectable human diclofenac being marketed in vials larger than 3ml – which are appropriate for human use – as vials any larger than this are effectively aimed at veterinary practitioners. This is actually a step that several of the responsible pharma companies have done voluntarily, but sadly many have not! We may need to name and shame such irresponsible companies. We would like to see more proactive steps and measures on this being taken by the authorities.”

The researchers found that there has been an increase in meloxicam (in 70 per cent of pharmacies), a drug with very similar therapeutic effects to diclofenac on cattle, but which has been proven to be safe to vultures. Ketoprofen, an alternative that has been tested and shown to be deadly to vultures, has still not been banned. It was on sale for veterinary use in 29 per cent of pharmacies. “Ketoprofen should have been banned, and there should be a government-funded programme to test the vulture safety of other drugs.”

Despite this apparently disturbing scenario, 2011 has been the most successful year yet at the Indian captive breeding centres. The number of fledged chicks is almost double last year’s. Eighteen vulture chicks were successfully reared – 15 at the Pinjore centre in Haryana, and the remaining three at Rajabhat Khawa in West Bengal. Four fledged birds were a direct result of ‘double clutches’: some pairs produced a second egg after the first was removed, hatched in incubators and reared by BNHS staff.

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Vultures in the wild. Photo: BNHS Photo Library

About this positive development, Bowden says, “The positive trend is pleasing, and is partly attributable to the success of instigating ‘double-clutches’ when the first egg is taken early enough to prompt the birds to lay a second egg in the same year. Also, more of the birds are maturing in the centres, and in fact we anticipate further increases in the coming years.”

BNHS, with support from the RSPB and newly-formed consortium Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), manages three conservation breeding centres in India, where 271 vultures are housed, and successful breeding of all three species has now occurred. There are also conservation breeding centres linked to the SAVE programme in Nepal and Pakistan.

A study published in 2007, led by Dr Vibhu Prakash from BNHS, had showed that the population of oriental white-backed vultures in India had dropped by an average of more than 40 per cent every year between 2000 and 2007. This species’ numbers have dropped by 99.9 per cent since 1992 to about 11,000 from tens of millions. Populations of long-billed and slender-billed vultures together, have fallen by almost 97 per cent over the same period. Long-billed vultures are now thought to number about 45,000 and slender-billed vultures just 1,000.

Studies in 2004–2007 found that diclofenac was the main, if not the only, cause of the South Asian vulture declines. The birds died of kidney failure after eating the carcasses of cattle that had been treated with diclofenac to ease pain and swelling within a few days of their death. A meeting of the Indian National Board for Wildlife in 2005, chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, prompted the withdrawal of licences for the manufacture of veterinary diclofenac.

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