Between 1991 and 2007, the population of the white-rumped vulture in India suffered an unprecedented drop of 99.9 percent, with corresponding reductions of 96.8 percent in both the Indian vulture and the slender-billed vulture. Initially, scientists were baffled as to the possible reasons behind this decline, with conflicting explanations varying from the use of pesticides, to an increasingly westernised middle-class consuming more beef and therefore removing one of the vulture’s primary food sources, to the destruction of vulture nesting sites.
Eventually, it emerged that the true cause of vulture deaths across the Indian subcontinent was diclofenac, a powerful anti-inflammatory drug regularly prescribed by veterinarians to treat cattle. The vultures were ingesting the drug as they fed on dead livestock, causing severe kidney damage in the birds which led to death within just a few days.
Indian ban on diclofenac
As a result of the discovery of the cause of the decline, veterinarians were subsequently banned from prescribing diclofenac across the region. However, despite these events and the fact that safe alternative drugs are now readily available, the European Union has recently sanctioned the use of diclofenac throughout all member countries. According to conservation groups, this could place European vulture species at risk of meeting a fate similar to that of their Asian counterparts, and could also threaten other wildlife.
“It is shocking that a drug that has already wiped out wildlife on a massive scale in Asia is now put on the market in crucial countries for vulture conservation such as Spain and Italy, especially as the total ban on diclofenac in India has produced the first signs of recovery in Indian vultures,” said José Tavares, the Director of the Vulture Conservation Foundation.
Vultures in Europe
Europe is home to an incredible ten species of vulture, eight of which are found in Spain. Of these, four are considered rare and threatened, and receive a certain level of protection under European law. Two such species are the cinereous vulture, an impressive bird with a wingspan of around three metres, and the Egyptian vulture, a species classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Spain is home to 97 percent of Europe’s cinereous vulture population and 85 percent of the continent’s Egyptian vulture population, as well as high proportions of other closely related species. Conservationists fear that the new ruling to allow the powerful anti-inflammatory drug to be distributed across the EU could put decades of vulture conservation efforts in Europe in jeopardy, particularly in vulture strongholds such as Spain.
Importance of vultures
While vultures may be viewed unfavourably by some, they play an extremely important role in ensuring the health and wellbeing of ecosystems through ecological recycling. These birds survive almost exclusively on carrion, and in countries such as Spain they consume the carcasses of livestock left in special sites known as ‘muladres’. By cleaning and disposing of these dead animals, vultures make a contribution to the health of local human communities, as this helps limit the populations of stray dogs which are enticed by the carcasses, and therefore reduces the potential for the transmission of life-threatening diseases such as rabies.
Call for action
In a technical document released recently on diclofenac in Europe, conservationists wrote, “The case here is clear – it is really a question of learning from what happened in India, and also upholding and being coherent with the leading role of many EU policies, notably on nature conservation.”
It is hoped that enforcing a ban on diclofenac in Europe will encourage countries in Africa to follow suit in an effort to save the continent’s dwindling vulture populations.
Find out more about vulture conservation at Tusk, VulPro, the Vulture Conservation Foundation and Save Our Species – Conserving South Asia’s Threatened Vultures.
Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Content and Outreach Officer