Drug ban could help save vultures: Study | mumbai | Hindustan Times
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Drug ban could help save vultures: Study

Five years after the veterinary drug diclofenac was banned in India, there is some hope for the dwindling vulture population. Snehal Rebello reports.

mumbai Updated: May 18, 2011 01:00 IST
Snehal Rebello

Five years after the veterinary drug diclofenac was banned in India, there is some hope for the dwindling vulture population. A new study has found that between 2006 and 2010, the proportion of cattle carcasses in the country contaminated with the diclofenac drug has declined by 40%.

So, while 12% cattle carcasses available for vultures to feed on had diclofenac before the ban, the figure has come down to 7% after the ban.

In 2006, the Indian government banned diclofenac when it was found that vultures were dying after they ate cattle carcasses that were treated with the non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug.

The decrease in vultures was apparent in three vulnerable species – oriental white-backed vulture, long-billed vulture and the slender billed vulture – that were endemic to south Asia but have been on the decline since the 1990s after the drug was introduced.

The study by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and UK-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was published in the May 11 issue of the PloS One, an online peer reviewed journal.

Started in 2004 and spanning six years, the ten-member team studied diclofenac concentration in 2,000 liver samples of cattle carcasses across India before and after the ban.

The study has restricted itself to oriental white-backed vultures since previous studies have established the link between their deaths after consumption of carcass ingested with diclofenac dose.

“We expect that our conclusions concerning this species will also be relevant to the conservation of the two other threatened species in south Asia,” said Dr Richard Cuthbert from RSPB and lead author of the study.

With a decrease in contamination levels, researchers said the annual rate of decline for the oriental white-backed vultures would dip to 18% from the present 40%.

Researchers, however, said that efforts to completely eradicate the drug have to continue. “The ban will be effective and vultures will be safe only when the amount of diclofenac in carcasses is 0.5%. So we have a long way to go,” said Vibhu Mathur, deputy director and head of vulture conservation breeding programme, BNHS. “We have tested another drug called Meloxicam that is safe for vultures and are pushing it as an alternative for cattle.”

Meanwhile, the government has directed pharmaceutical companies to manufacture smaller (3 to 4mm) vials of the drug for humans. “Human formulations are still being sold by some irresponsible companies in large veterinary-sized vials (30mm). These must also be outlawed to make illegal diclofenac use on cattle more difficult and expensive,” said Asad Rahmani, director, BNHS.