Diclofenac still a major threat for vultures

Human formulations of the drug Diclofenac banned for veterinary use are still being illegally used to treat cattle, posing a grave danger to the already critically-endangered vulture population, say experts.

New Delhi: Human formulations of the drug Diclofenac banned for veterinary use are still being illegally used to treat cattle, posing a grave danger to the already critically-endangered vulture population, say experts.

"Till the late 80s vultures could be seen breeding in Talkatora gardens as well in large hoards in various parts of the city. Once they were very common and we were worried about their excessive numbers. But that has changed. The population has witnessed an alarming crash over the past few decades," says environmentalist Ravi Aggarwal.

Almost 99 per cent of the scavenger birds are today on the verge of extinction, he points out.

"The annual mortality of the long living and slow breeding birds is not more than 5 per cent. However by mid 1990s and 2000, the species mortality rate ratcheted up to a high and 90 per cent of the vulture population had already disappeared," says Vibhu Prakash, who heads the vulture conservation programme of the Bombay Natural History Society.

The culprit was found to be use of Diclofenac, a drug which gets ingested into the birds body when they feed on the cattle treated with the drug forming white crystals of uric acid deposits on the vital organs.

Unable to excrete uric acid, the kidneys of the birds fail and eventually the vultures die of dehydration.

"In India, 76 per cent of the dead vultures when examined showed symptoms of visceral gout. All of them had residues of diclofenac in their body. The drug is 30 to 40 times as toxic to vultures as cyanide is to rats," says Prakash.

Taking into consideration the vulture ecology, Prakash points out that "even less than 1 per cent of the carcass which has the drug can cause the kind of crash in the population which we have seen in the country."

In 2006, the Centre came up with the Vulture Action Plan whose key recommendations included a ban on the use of diclofenac, use of an alternative drug to diclofenac and initiation of a conservation breeding plan.
But despite Diclofenac being banned for veterinary use the drug available in multi-dose vials for humans, is used illegally to treat cattle, point out experts.

The vulture conservation programme of BHNS, has bred some 300 birds, including 46 chicks, in three breeding centres- Pinjore in Haryana, Rani in Assam and in West Bengal. "The Society, he says, has set the 2016 as the target year to begin releasing its captive vultures," says Prakash.

Experts point out the significant role vultures play in
maintaining equilibrium in the ecology.

The vultures act like scavengers to keep the environment clean by feeding on the carcass dumps. A colony of vultures can finish off a full grown cow within minutes. A dead animal asts as a culture medium of fungus and bacteria which starts growing and multiplying as soon as the animal dies, they form spores and penetrate into the soil and water and spread disease.

Populations of three Asian vulture species (White-rumped Vulture, Long-billed Vulture, and Slender-billed Vulture) have declined by more than 99 per cent in South Asia since the early 1990s. "There is a total number of 1000 slender billed vulture, 44000 round billed vulture and 12000 White vulture," says Prakash.

Talking about the Gyp Species of the vultures, Prakash points that they formed 99 per cent of the vulture population and feed on soft tissues and vital organs which form the bulk of animal body.

The Long Billed vultures nest on the cliffs and is found only in India and some parts of Pakistan and thus if the species disappear, they will become extinct.

"The slender billed vultures, one of the rarest vultures in the world, remain less than thousand today," says the scientist.

Prakash explains that if 600 pairs of each of the three species are released in the wild that will form a genetically viable and self sustainable population.

"And to get 600 pairs, we need to breed 150 pairs of each of the three species. One of the major problems with these breeding centres is that the birds have to be kept in captivity. This means they cannot soar in the sky. This, in turn, causes problems in the feet. We have already bred 50 birds in the centre under the breeding program," he says.

A lack of implementation, strong lobby and power equation as some of the major reasons which is preventing the drug Diclofenac from being wiped off completely point out experts.

"There are number of companies manufacturing meloxicam, an alternate drug for veterinary use, yet human formulations are being used for treating livestock which is a dangerous situation for vultures which continue to die. Meloxicam, compared to diclofenac, is an expensive drug," says Prakash.

While some activists say targeted advocacy and awareness generation could help in banning Diclofenac completely, others say the side effects of the drug on human body could be used and run as a parallel campaign.

Other experts also suggest the use of films and puppet shows as an effective advocacy tool to ban the drug completely and generate awareness.

The experts were participating in a lecture on "The Magnificent Vulture - End of the Road?" here which was followed by a screening of the "Vanishing vultures" directed by noted wildlife filmmaker Mike Pandey.