Painkillers or killer drugs?

VULTURE CONSERVATION

Not so long ago, the drug Diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), was used as a painkiller for humans as well as for veterinary purposes. But in 2006, the government banned the manufacturing as well as the use of this drug for treating animals.

The reason – it was poisoning the highly endangered vultures of India to death. But five years post the ban, an investigative report finds that the drug is still available with pharmacists; it is still being bought by livestock farmers to treat their ailing cattle and it is still a potent killer driving the vultures to extinction in India.

Researchers of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Birds (RSPB) and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) visited veterinary pharmacies in 11 states between 2007 and 2010. When they asked for NSAIDs for treating cattle, the drug Diclofenac was a choice offered to them in 36 per cent of the shops. Cattle farmers were also found illegally purchasing human Diclofenac to treat their livestock.

The last meal
Vultures are areal scavengers. They live on the dead and probably that is one of the reasons why the birds are often seen in a negative light. But contrary to the image a death-eater tag can create, these birds are doing a great service to nature by acting as its cleaners. What humans on the other hand are offering these birds is a slow and painful death via carcass of an animal treated with Diclofenac. Even if traces of the drug pass from the carcass to the vulture’s digestive system, it results in kidney failure and visceral gout.

The genus Gyps Vulture consists of eight species of vultures, out of which five are found in the Indian subcontinent. Of these the White-backed, Slender-billed and the Long-billed vultures have already been placed in the IUCN’s Red List of Critically Endangered Species. Populations of long-billed and slender-billed vultures together, have fallen by almost 97 per cent in the last decade. Long-billed vultures are now thought to number about 45,000 and slender-billed vultures just 1,000. Oriental white-backed vulture population has declined to 11,000 from tens and millions.

Every day, there is one bird less flying over the subcontinent because of lack of breeding grounds, reduced number of tall trees to perch on and scarce feeding grounds. Sadly then when these malnourished vultures feast on a drug infested cattle carcass, it becomes the last meal they partake on planet earth.

The good news and the bad news
A research conducted by the online journal PLoSOne last May found that post the ban the expected rate of annual population decline of the vultures might have slowed down by approximately 60 per cent. For the most susceptible species, the oriental white-backed vulture the decline rate calculated now is about 18 per cent per year as compared to 40 per cent per year before the 2006 ban.

But the good news does come with a pinch of salt as Chris Bowden, RSPB’s International Species Recovery Officer & SAVE Programme Manager elaborates, “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.”

The latest report has unveiled other factors too. On the positive side, 70 per cent of pharmacies were found to have meloxicam, a drug with very similar therapeutic effects to Diclofenac on cattle, but which has been proven to be safe to vultures. But then again pharmacists have Ketoprofen too, an alternative as deadly as Diclofenac which is still not banned.

And the vultures are not entirely safe. Human formulations are being sold by some irresponsible companies in large veterinary-sized vials (30ml) that are mostly for human use but enough for cattle and more than enough to mass murder vultures.
Bangalore based nature enthusiast Neloy Bandyopadhyay who self funded a documentary on the vulnerability of the life of vultures comes to the point straight away. He says, “The ban on the drug is not sufficient; a complete phase out of this drug including human Diclofenac is a must.”

The road ahead
The BNHS, with support from the RSPB manages three conservation breeding centres in India, where 271 vultures are housed, and successful breeding of all three species has now occurred. Vulture restaurants a unique initiative by state governments too is ensuring the birds feed on safe carcasses.

But finally it is farmers, pharmacists and general public who use Diclofenac and need to stop at once. The cultural significance of the vultures especially in the Parsi community is immense. So is the biological significance of these birds in keeping the dynamic equilibrium of nature perfect. For us therefore, feeding poison to a bird that is serving to cleanse the environment is not justly a noble way to return the favour.

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