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Flouting ban on drug endangers Indian vultures

Sep 12, 2011

A survey has found that the toxic drug diclofenac, banned for killing India's critically endangered vultures, is still widely available and may jeopardise efforts to restore wild populations by means of captive breeding programs.

Diclofenac was banned for use by vets and farmers in 2006 because of its effect on vultures that feed on livestock carcasses.

But researchers found the drug for sale in some form in 36% of the pharmacies investigated

White-rumped vulture feeding

 Despite advances in captive breeding, conservationists warn the birds' future in the wild cannot be guaranteed.

Three species of vulture native to India have suffered rapid population crashes since the 1990s: the Indian vulture (Gyps indicus), slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) and white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis).

Numbers of the latter species, also known as oriental white-backed vultures, are estimated to have dropped by 99.9% in the past decade.

Populations of Indian and slender-billed vultures have declined by 97% over the same period.

In 2004 scientists identified diclofenac-poisoning as the primary cause of the declines.

The vultures ingested the drug when feeding on the carcasses of livestock that had been treated shortly before their death.

For religious reasons, dying cattle are not killed to relieve their suffering in India so anti-inflammatory drugs are commonly used to reduce pain and swelling in injured and diseased animals.

Diclofenac was banned in India, Nepal and Pakistan in 2006 with further restrictions on its manufacture introduced in India in 2008.

But a survey published in the journal Oryx has confirmed conservationists' concerns that pharmacies are flouting the ban.

Investigating more than 250 veterinary and general pharmacies, researchers found that just over a third still sold the anti-inflammatory drug in some form.

Nine different brands of illegally-manufactured tablets for veterinary use were discovered.

Lead author and principal conservation scientist at the RSPB Dr Richard Cuthbert also identified that some pharmacies were circumventing the ban with injectable drugs manufactured for human use.

"The ban is still quite easy to avoid because human formulations are still freely for sale in large vials which are convenient for use on large animals like cattle and clearly not suitable for human use," he said.

Co-author of the study Dr Vibhu Prakash, of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), called for "firm action at government level" to enforce the law relating to the manufacture and sale of the drug.

Some success

But the findings also highlighted some hope for saving the vultures from extinction.

Researchers found the vulture-safe alternative drug meloxicam available in 70% of pharmacies

Indian vulture chicks

In findings published earlier this year, scientists suggested the ban and availability of non-toxic substitutes had improved the situation for vultures.

They identified that 40% fewer cattle carcasses were 'contaminated' with diclofenac between 2006 and 2008.

Conservationists working to safeguard the future of the species have also made positive reports from captive breeding programmes.

The number of chicks fledging at the BNHS centres has doubled this year to a total of 18.

Aided by support from the RSPB and the Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) consortium, 271 vultures are now housed in three breeding centres across India.

All three species have now been successfully bred in captivity but conservationists remain cautious about the future.

"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 for them," says the RSPB's head of vulture programme and SAVE spokesperson Chris Bowden.

"But until diclofenac stops being produced and sold for veterinary use we cannot guarantee these birds have any future in the wild."

Source : BBC
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