During the early 2000s, India saw a catastrophic decline in vultures, with numbers of one species, the oriental white-backed vulture, crashing by a staggering 99.7%. It was discovered to be down to the use of an anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac, which vets used to treat cattle. When the cows died, they were simply left out for the vultures to devour, and researchers later found out that the drug was lethal to the scavenging birds.
This led to the government banning the use of veterinary diclofenac, although the drug is still available in large doses marketed for human use. In reality, however, these are used by vets illegally in order to continue treating cattle. The government has now acted to stop the sale of diclofenac in such large vials, limiting it to single dose samples. Hopefully, this will make it too expensive to be used by vets and thus lead to its complete elimination from cattle, strengthening the protection of the vultures further.
“It will go a long way in preventing possible extinction of vultures by drastically reducing misuse of multi-dose vials, without any significant threat for legitimate use on humans,” Bombay Natural History Society officials told The Times of India. Until now, while humans only need a dose of around three milliliters (a tenth of a fluid ounce), the drug has been sold in vials of 30 milliliters (one fluid ounce). With cattle needing 10-15 milliliters (around a third to a half a fluid ounce) of the drug, the multi-dose bottles are frequently misused by vets, despite alternative vulture-friendly anti-inflammatories being available, such as meloxicam.
In fact, while the decline in vulture numbers in India appears to have slowed or even ceased in some places since the ban of diclofenac in 2006, a study last year concluded that the drug could still be found in pharmacies across the country. They note in the paper that more needs to be done to finally eliminate the drug from the vultures’ food supply, something that the government now appears to be trying to do.
Following this news is a call from a number of animal and environmental organizations for the European Union to follow India’s lead, and ban the veterinary use of the drug across all of Europe, where it is still legally sold in certain countries such as Spain and Italy.
“Spanish authorities are choosing pharmaceuticals over the environment,” Asunción Ruiz, CEO of SEO/BirdLife Spain, told Al Jazeera. “Vultures provide services to our farmers that are far more valuable than the benefits of this product, a product that can easily be replaced by safer drugs.”
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