A recent scientific discovery made by The Peregrine Fund and published in the journal Nature has shown that the veterinary drug diclofenac is the cause of the catastrophic decline in vulture populations on the Indian subcontinent. In response, the Indian government has ordered the withdrawal of veterinary formulations of diclofenac and its phasing out within three months. Licenses for manufacture will be cancelled, marketing will be prohibited and State vets have been instructed to stop buying it.
This is fantastic news and the result of considerable efforts from a range of organizations, in and out of India. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and their partner, the Bombay Natural History Society, have played a very significant part in getting this result.
It was The Peregrine Fund's research that linked veterinary use of "diclofenac" with the rapid population crashes of three species of raptors. The discovery was the result of a three-year effort by an international team of scientists. The team was assembled and led by The Peregrine Fund and included members from Washington State University, The Ornithological Society of Pakistan, Bird Conservation Nepal, United States Geological Service, Zoological Society of San Diego, and University of California, Davis.
In the last decade, population losses of more than 95% of three raptor species have been reported throughout South Asia. A decline of this magnitude is without precedence among vertebrate species. The three species are the Oriental White-backed Vulture, Long-billed Vulture, and Slender-billed Vulture in South Asia.
Diclofenac is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that has been in human use for pain and inflammation for decades. The veterinary use of diclofenac on livestock in South Asia had grown in the past decade and has become widespread. Peregrine Fund biologists identified it as the cause of the decline and found by experiment that livestock dying shortly after diclofenac treatment held sufficient residues of diclofenac to cause kidney failure and death in vultures that consumed them.
Like Peregrine Falcons and DDT, vultures in this case are the "canary in the coal miner's cage" warning of a potentially dangerous environmental health hazard. Vultures are sampling the environment and their deaths and population collapse have demonstrated a widespread toxic effect by this pharmaceutical drug. The results are important to toxicologists, conservationists, and drug manufacturers worldwide.
Of course, there is still a long way to go, but the banning of diclofenac is a very important milestone in the journey towards the recovery of South Asian vulture populations.
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