The Peregrine Fund discovered in 2003 that the veterinary drug diclofenac was responsible for a catastrophic collapse of vulture populations in South Asia in less than a decade. The drug was banned for veterinary use in 2006 by India, Pakistan and Nepal, and Bangladesh took similar action in 2010.
The drug is still used to treat livestock in some areas although a safer alternative, Meloxicam, is now available. Vulture populations may be stabilizing, but, tragically, some species already have declined by up to 99 percent, making extinction a continued threat to these ecologically and culturally important birds.
Species affected include:
Diclofenac is an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat ailing livestock. Even a trace of diclofenac in a carcass is enough to cause vultures to die slowly and painfully of renal failure. Just one cow carcass can poison many vultures, which eat in social groups. Not only has diclofenac brought the birds to the brink of extinction, but the effect of the vulture population decline on people is becoming evident, too. The drop has caused a burgeoning population of feral dogs, rats, and other animals more likely to come into contact with humans and spread rabies and other diseases.
Vultures fill a vital ecological niche as nature’s clean-up crew. These remarkable birds can pick a carcass clean long before it has time to contaminate land and water resources. The Peregrine Fund was the first conservation organization to set up “vulture restaurants” in South Asia, where diclofenac-free carcasses were set out for vultures to eat.
See the Asia-Pacific Program for more information on our work with Asian vultures.