Drug ban could save vultures

Vultures in danger of being wiped out by a drug used to treat livestock in India have been given a reprieve after the Government called on companies to phase out the medicine.

While perhaps not the most lovable of birds, vultures play a vital role in many countries as nature’s waste managers, disposing of carcasses which would otherwise be left to rot and become a potential source of disease and infection.

But in India the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac has decimated the vulture population, which has plummeted to less than 3% of what it was in 1990 – a decline even more rapid than that which wiped out the dodo.

As a result the number of feral dogs has doubled, leading to the spread of rabies.

This week the Indian government has ordered all of the country’s drug companies to halt production and sale of diclofenac within three months.

Pharmaceutical firms have been told to instead promote an alternative, meloxicam, which has been shown by scientists to be safe for vultures.

Mark Avery, director of conservation at the RSPB said: “Saving Asian vultures is now more than possible because of this ban.

“The Indian Government’s decision is a historic and priceless one and a move that will be hugely significant for the millions of people in Asia for whom vultures are absolutely indispensable.”

Mr Avery said that vultures have for centuries played an irreplaceable role in cleaning the millions of carcasses of domestic animals left at special carcass dumps throughout south Asia but particularly in India, Pakistan and Nepal.

They die from kidney failure after eating the flesh of cattle and water buffalo treated with diclofenac, which is used widely in Asia as a multi-use veterinary drug.

The decline of the oriental white-backed, long-billed and slender billed species means the bodies of animals lie rotting in public areas, for days and sometimes weeks.

The collapse in vulture populations has affected millions of leather tanners, bone collectors, craftsmen and glue makers who rely on cleaned carcasses for their livelihoods.

And the 50,000-strong Parsi community can no longer depend on vultures for the sky burials of their dead. They must find alternative methods of disposing of the bodies.

Chris Bowden, had of the RSPB’s Asian Vulture Programme, said: “This ban is exceptionally good news and the crucial step we have all been looking for.

“Making diclofenac illegal and removing it from shop shelves are the next steps and we don’t yet know how big a job the latter will be.

“But this ban is a massive first step towards halting the vultures’ decline and may well be the turning point in saving them from outright extinction.”

The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has been at the forefront of the campaign for a diclofenac ban.

Director Dr Asad Rahmani said: “This is some of the best news of my life and shows that good scientific evidence has been accepted by the Indian Government.

“This is a very important step. Now we need to see that implementation is effective and that there is awareness of the problem at all levels.”

Sam Bond

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