India to Ban Vulture Toxic, Pakistan, Nepal Urged to Follow

LONDON, UK, March 29, 2005 (ENS) - A worldwide coalition of bird conservation groups today appealed to the governments of Pakistan and Nepal to ban the use of a veterinary drug that has caused the population crash of three species of vulture in southern Asia. The decline of the three vultures is thought to be the most rapid decline of any species of bird, even faster than that of the dodo before its extinction.

In early 2004, The U.S. based Peregrine Fund working in Pakistan found that a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac, was responsible for declines in white-rumped vultures in Pakistan.

Work by the Bombay Natural History Society, the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Zoological Society of London and others extended this work to show diclofenac as the major cause of declines in the vulture declines right across South Asia.


Long-billed vultures, Gyps indicus, in Nepal are at risk of consuming a veterinary drug that can kill them. (Photo courtesy Himalayan Hawk Conservancy)
Diclofenac, widely sold over the counter in southern Asia for use as a livestock treatment, is toxic to vultures when the birds feed on the carcasses of treated cattle. The drug causes fatal kidney failure in the vultures.

The coalition of 100 bird conservation groups is asking Pakistan and Nepal to follow the lead of the Indian government in banning the use of diclofenac.

At a board meeting of the Indian government's National Board for Wildlife on March 17, a decision was taken to phase out the use of diclofenac for veterinary use within the next six months. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has endorsed the board’s recommendation.

Chris Bowden, the RSPB’s vulture-programme manager, said, “The Indian government is to be congratulated on taking this huge step that we have working towards ever since the discovery that diclofenac was such an acute problem."

The three vultures are already regionally extinct in several parts of southern Asia, and the conservation organization BirdLife International, represented in the UK by the RSPB, says that without further action from other countries where the birds remain, further extinctions are inevitable in the near future.

“The decline of vultures in southern Asia is one of the most troubling declines of any group of birds in the world," Bowden said. "We recognize the boldness of the Indian government in phasing out the veterinary use of this drug, but without futher action the three species of vulture are still in severe trouble.”

Populations of the white-rumped vulture, long-billed vulture and slender-billed vulture, declined by more than 90 percent between 1992 and 2000.


White-rumped vulture Gyps bengalenis populations in Nepal are declining. (Photo courtesy Himalayan Hawk Conservancy)
On the basis of their catastrophic declines, the IUCN-World Conservation Union has listed these species as critically endangered: the highest level of threat.

But declines have continued, and Indian national surveys carried out between 2000 and 2003 indicate annual decline rates of 22 percent for the long-billed vulture and 48 percent for the white backed vulture.

If these rates of decline continue, the three vulture species are heading for rapid extinction in India.

Asad Rahmani, director of Bombay Natural History Society, the RSPB’s partner in India, said, “In taking the decision to phase out diclofenac, our Prime Minister Mr Manmohan Singh has taken the most important step yet to save these fast-disappearing species of vultures. I request the governments of neighboring countries to ban this drug from veterinary use."

There is concern that even with a ban in six months, stockpiles of diclofenac will be administered until they are exhausted.

Dr. Debbie Pain, head of international research at the RSPB, said, “We recognize the need for an alternative livestock treatment to be found as soon as possible. Initial trials conducted in South Africa have revealed hope that a drug already available on the Indian market may well be a viable alternative to diclofenac and of comparatively low toxicity to vultures.”

Since diclofenac was identified as the cause of vulture declines, the RSPB has been working with the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and others to identify potential alternatives to diclofenac, that would be relatively safe to vultures. A possible alternative has been identified and safety testing is underway. While not yet conclusive, results are promising and trials will be completed this summer," Dr. Pain said.

Conservationists want to bring vultures into captivity as rapidly as possible to establish conservation breeding populations. Birds should them be released back into the wild when vulture populations are breeding and the environment is effectively free from diclofenac.

"The battle to save the vultures is not yet over," said Rahmani. "We have to develop conservation breeding centers as a further safeguard to save these magnificent lords of the sky.”