India takes the lead in the fight to save Asian vultures from extinction

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white-vulture

The first saturday of September is celebrated annually as International Vulture Awareness Day. On this day, zoos and organizations across the world organize activities that highlight Vulture conservation and awareness apart from spreading word about the threats these species face.

This year a significant step taken by the Indian Ministry of Health will prove to be a major milestone in the conservation of the endangered vulture population in Asia, particularly in the Indian sub-continent. India has passed a ban on multi-dose vials of the drug Diclofenac, which is responsible for the death of tens of millions of Asia’s vultures. The ban will come into force with immediate effect.

Diclofenac is a painkiller that is often given to cattle and buffalo but it kills any vultures that eat the carcasses of these treated animals, as it results in renal failure in vultures. This has resulted in the loss of over 49 million vultures in the past 20 years and it has had a cascading effect on India’s ecosystem. Without these scavengers to eat dead animals, diseases are on the rise, feral dog population has grown and even a religion (Parsi community) that depended on vultures to consume their fallen believers has suffered.

India has seen an unprecedented decline in three species of South Asia’s Gyps vulture populations – White-rumped, the long-billed and the slender-billed vulture due to extensive use of large doses of veterinary Diclofenac. The Indian white-backed vultures declined by a shocking 99.9% between 1992 and 2007.

In 2006, the governments of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan banned the use of diclofenac for veterinary use after intensive campaigning by conservationists. Between 2006 and 2010, experts have recorded a slowing of Gyps vulture declines as a result of these bans. However, human formulations of the drug have been used illegally to treat animals and livestock since then, the carcasses of which are the main food source for vultures in South Asia.
Also, large vials of the human formulation of diclofenac remained readily available and widely used by farmers around the country. The new law bans any vial larger than three milliliters, which is enough to treat a person but too small to treat an animal.

Vibhu Prakash, a scientist from the Bombay Natural History Society (BirdLife in India) said, “Probably the most important step in vulture conservation since diclofenac’s ban for veterinary use in 2006, this latest announcement shows how much progress has been made. But there is still a job to do to make sure that safe alternative drugs are used.  Unfortunately, many alternatives, like ketoprofen, are not vulture-safe and more remain untested. In fact, there is only one vulture-safe alternative – meloxicam.”

This is a significant step taken by India to save its three critically endangered vulture species from extinction. Conservationists hope that other European Union nations follow suit, especially since it remains for sale in some nations such as Spain and Italy- which has the most vultures in the EU. Last year the European Medicines Agency advised that the E.U. ban diclofenac, but to date nothing has happened.

Chris Bowden, RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) and SAVE vulture programme manager said, “We’re very disappointed at the lack of progress on this. It now seems that we need to find and prove the death of vultures in the wild in Europe before any further action will be taken. India is setting a far better example on this.”

SAVE – a consortium of vulture-saving partner organization is working to stop veterinary use of diclofenac by advocating vulture conservation to governments and raising awareness of alternative drugs such as Meloxicam that are just as effective in treating cattle to veterinarians and livestock owners. They are also captively breeding vultures at centres in India, Nepal and Pakistan which they will release to supplement the surviving wild population, at a time they deem safe.

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The above article has been adapted from Scientific American, BirdLife