The drug, used to treat swelling and pain in cattle, is ingested by vultures when they feed on cattle carcasses. The Indian vulture, slender-billed vulture and Asian white-backed vulture have all suffered dramatic population crashes of between 97 and 99.9% as a result of ingesting the drug, and are now classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Ban being flouted
The recent research, published in the journal Oryx, has found that in spite of the 2006 ban on the use of diclofenac, it is still being sold in over a third of the pharmacies surveyed. Dr Richard Cuthbert, of the RSPB, identified a source of the banned veterinary drug:
“The ban is still quite easy to avoid because human formulations are for sale in large vials, which are clearly not intended for human use. Preventing misuse of human diclofenac remains the main challenge in halting the decline of threatened vultures.”
Dr Vibhu Prakash, co-author of the study, has called for the government to use firm action in enforcing the ban on this drug.
In spite of the bad news, the research has also suggested that the ban may have led to some improvements in the situation for India’s vultures. An inspection of cattle carcasses in the two years following the ban found that 40% fewer contained the banned drug. They also found that the vulture-safe alternative drug, meloxicam, was available in 70% of pharmacies.
Even more encouragingly, the number of vultures successfully raised at captive breeding centres in India has been the highest yet. Eighteen chicks were successfully fledged in 2011, double the number from last year. There are now 271 birds housed in 3 captive breeding centres, with all three of the Critically Endangered species having been successfully bred in captivity.
Chris Bowden, head of the RSPB’s vulture programme, said of this success, “With the latest success at the breeding centres, we’re more confident than ever that there will be sufficient numbers for reintroduction to the wild as soon as it’s safe. But until production and sale of veterinary diclofenac is stopped, we cannot guarantee these birds have any future in the wild.”
Rebecca Moran, ARKive Species Text Author