The problem of diclofenac
30 March 2012
During the 1980s the Oriental white-backed vulture was so abundant in India that it was probably the most common large bird of prey in the world.
Then vultures rapidly started disappearing from the landscape. Many were found sick and dead across India, and in neighbouring Pakistan and Nepal.
A study in 2004 solved the mystery of why the vultures were vanishing. A veterinary drug called diclofenac was the main, if not the only, cause of vulture declines.
The birds were eating the carcasses of animals that had recently been treated with diclofenac. The birds were then dying of kidney failure. It has been shown that, even if less than 1% of animal carcasses contained lethal levels of the drug, this would have been enough to cause the collapse of vulture numbers.
The manufacture of the veterinary diclofenac, as an anti-inflammatory treatment for livestock, was outlawed in India in 2006. This was followed by bans in Nepal, Pakistan and most recently in Bangladesh. The government bans in these countries has formed a key response to the crisis, and the latest evidence shows that diclofenac levels are beginning to come down.
However, diclofenac is still being found in cattle carcasses. Diclofenac formulated for humans is not banned and is still available. So there is still a lot more to do to prevent equally dangerous human diclofenac formulations as well as other untested veterinary drugs, being used in its place.
The effect of this drug on birds of prey remind us of the devastating impact of the pesticide DDT on birds worldwide. It took years for governments to remove DDT from use.
Diclofenac is so devastating that we do not have many years if our threatened vultures are to be saved. Removing diclofenac and expanding the captive breeding centres are the only ways to save the birds.
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