Today’s guest blog is from Andrew Callender, who leads the RSPB’s international policy programme work.

Vultures used to be a very common sight in the early 1990’s across the Indian sub-continent. A decade and a half later, 99.9% of white-rumped vultures  and 96.8% of the combined populations of long-billed  and slender-billed vultures in India – well over 40 million birds – were dead. The absence of vultures left millions of tonnes of livestock carcasses every year for other scavengers. Feral dog populations have sky-rocketed, increasing the risk of dog attacks and the transmission of rabies.

The cause of this population collapse was by no means obvious, but, in 2004, it was shown to be the veterinary drug diclofenac, a popular anti-inflammatory pain-killer, to which vultures were exposed through consuming carcasses of treated cattle. Vultures are highly intolerant to even small doses of diclofenac, which causes irreversible renal damage and death (preceded by characteristic drooping heads as seen below); indeed it is so toxic to vultures that the presence of diclofenac in only 1% of carcasses across India caused the observed declines and near extinction of South Asia’s vultures.

Dying white-rumped vulture Image credit: V. Prakash

The RSPB worked with BirdLife Partners and other NGOs to lobby successfully for diclofenac to be banned in India, Nepal and Pakistan in 2006 (and then Bangladesh in 2010), and, fortuitously, a vulture-safe alternative to diclofenac was identified – meloxicam – in the same year. In 2011, we spearheaded the formation of Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), a consortium to coordinate the breeding vultures in captivity for future release, establishing Vulture Safe Zones free from diclofenac and working in partnership across borders. This work is on-going, and there are signs that the declines in vulture populations have slowed and possibly reversed for one species (white-rumped vulture); however, the number of vultures remains dangerously low.

With such a clear link between the vulture population crashes and diclofenac, and the existence of a vulture-safe alternative to diclofenac, that should have been the end of its veterinary use. However, that has not been the case and we continue to fight against the misuse of diclofenac manufactured for human use in livestock in South Asia. In addition, diclofenac is not the only vulture-toxic drug in veterinary use in South Asia; and so we are lobbying for bans on other veterinary drugs as well.  

We certainly would not have expected that the drug would find its way into Europe. Yet, diclofenac is now licensed for veterinary use in a number of EU countries: it was licensed in Italy in 2009; and gained approval in Spain in 2013. Italy has a small, but growing population of vultures in the north; but the real concern is in Spain where 95% of all Europe’s vultures live, with approximately 26,000 pairs of Eurasian griffons, 1,600 pairs of Egyptian vultures, 2,000 pairs of cinereous vultures and 125 pairs bearded vultures.

Bearded Vulture in Spain Image Credit: O.V. Gjershaug

Veterinary diclofenac does not have central marketing approval from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) as it is authorized independently by each Member State. The EMA did issue advice in 2014 that veterinary diclofenac did represent a real risk to European vultures, but it stopped short of an outright ban, claiming that it did not have sufficient information or the scope of remit. Instead it suggested Member States should recommend and implement risk mitigation measures regarding the drug’s application. This has not happened.

The longer the drug remains in circulation, the greater the risk to European vulture populations. Europe’s eagles, including the Spanish imperial eagle, are at risk too because we have shown that eagles are also intolerant to diclofenac. Moreover, although the focus must remain on banning diclofenac, this is clearly not the only veterinary drug that is toxic to vultures and eagles. The pharmaceutical industry needs to do more to support the development of vulture-safe alternatives.

So what can you do? Ban Vet Diclofenac is an initiative by our Spanish and Portuguese Birdlife Partners (SEO and SPEA respectively), the Vulture Conservation Foundation, WWF Spain and BirdLife Europe and Central Asia to ban veterinary diclofenac, a drug that could potentially wipe out vultures in Europe. The link to the petition is here