India bans drug threatening to wipe out vultures

India has banned the production and sale of an anti-inflammatory drug used in cattle that is poisoning the country’s vultures one step up the food chain. Vultures fulfill a vital role, stripping down animal carcasses that would otherwise slowly rot and attract disease-spreading feral dogs and vermin. But the number of South Asia’s Oriental white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed vultures has plummeted more than 97 percent over 15 years, which scientists say is largely due to the widespread use of the drug diclofenac in cattle, which causes fatal liver damage in vultures.

Now, India has ordered drug companies to stop making and marketing diclofenac for veterinary use within three months. “This ban is exceptionally good news and the crucial step we have all been looking for,” said Chris Bowden, head of the Asian Vulture Program at Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in a statement. “The decline of vultures has been quicker than any other wild bird including the dodo — and we know what happened to them.”

India is recommending farmers and vets use the drug meloxicam instead. A study published in the journal PLoS Biology in January said meloxicam was just as effective in cattle without being toxic to vultures, even in high doses. But without an outright ban on diclofenac, conservationists are worried imported supplies will be used.

June 6, 2006

Original web page at Reuters