On October 8, 2020, eight white-backed vultures tagged with satellites were released from an aviary near the Pinjore Vulture Protection Center in northern Haryana. The project had been in the works for years.
“We monitored vulture populations within 100 km of the aviary,” said Vibhu Prakash, deputy director of the Bombay Natural History Society, a conservation NGO. “We also monitored the area [vulture-toxic] Drugs, food availability, nutrition and everything. “In Pinjore, at the foot of the Himalayas in India, around 300 captive vultures are fed and housed, divided into three species – white-backed, Indian and slender vultures.
The Pinjore Breeding Center, a collaboration between the Bombay Natural History Society and the government of Haryana, was established in 2004 in response to a catastrophic vulture death – in just over a decade, approximately 2 to 4 crore birds were killed. Only a few thousand survived and the three species have been classified as “Critically Endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The cause: accidental poisoning by diclofenac – an anti-inflammatory drug that has been used to treat sick cows since the 1980s.
Vultures that fed on cadavers laced with diclofenac died of kidney failure, fell into trees, fields and garbage dumps, their blood was full of uric acid and crystallized around their organs. The drug was banned for veterinary use in India, Nepal, Pakistan in 2006 and Bangladesh in 2010.
The Pinjore Center had a simple goal: to provide a breeding reserve for vultures to start off in a diclofenac-free world. Because of this, Prakash and his team continued to wait until they discovered that the use of diclofenac in Pinjore had decreased significantly.
The government’s new plan
Fourteen years after the initial ban, diclofenac use has declined, but the drug is still around. Several other diclofenac-like pain relievers used in veterinary care, which are also fatal in vultures, contribute to the death toll. The number of birds has continued to decline, albeit at a much slower pace. However, the results of a recent survey show that the decline in white-backed vultures “may have reversed”.
Finally, in November 2020, the Government of India released the Vulture Conservation Action Plan in India 2020-2025, an ambitious conservation strategy to set up new breeding centers like the one in Pinjore, to set up new vulture centers in each state, and to better monitor including a nationwide population of birds .
“We have to really appreciate the new vulture action plan,” said S Bharathidasan, secretary of Arulagam, an NGO protecting wildlife in Tamil Nadu. The plan is comprehensive and closes important political loopholes, he added.
Conservationists say the top points of the plan are stricter reviews of the sale and use of anti-inflammatory drugs like diclofenac. Geier safety trials for several diclofenac-like drugs; and the automatic removal of all veterinary drugs found to be toxic in vultures.
Law is not enough
The 2006 ban suffered from poor implementation. The drug is legal for human use, so the diclofenac supply line continued to flow. There have been alleged cases of some pharmaceutical companies selling diclofenac in large bottles for cattle. Only the label was changed so that it was intended for human consumption.
Human diclofenac in beef cans. Photo credit: Aditya Roy / Soar Excursions
In 2015, the government made another attempt to enforce the law by limiting the vial size to three milliliters. A study, originally published in 2020 in the journal Bird Conservation International, said trends in the availability of the vulture-toxic drug diclofenac and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in South Asia, according to undercover pharmacy surveys, diclofenac was largely derived from medical stores in Bangladesh and taken from Nepal. It was still widely available in Indian pharmacies and was offered by 10 to 46% of respondents surveyed.
Now the government plans to tighten the conditions under which diclofenac and related drugs are sold to patients. Not only do chemists need to resell the drug when they see a prescription, they also need to keep a copy of the prescription for government review.
The action plan also calls on the animal husbandry departments in all state governments to ensure that veterinary care is only provided by qualified doctors. Untrained people have been reported to overdose on sick cows – sometimes up to 35 times the regular dose. This makes the cattle carcasses a deadly meal for vultures.
Bad habits die hard
Diclofenac is a habit that has remained due in part to a lack of choice. Meloxicam, the only vulture-proof diclofenac substitute, is not popular with veterinarians in India. In 2017, meloxicam only made up 32% of sales.
“Diclofenac is familiar to veterinarians. Its properties are a little different from meloxicam – it acts a little faster on the animal and has antipyretic properties, which means it also reduces fevers, “said Chris Bowden, program manager of Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction, an alliance of 24 scientific well-founded organizations. “Even so, veterinarians in other parts of the world have accepted meloxicam as a very good drug.”
Stamping out diclofenac won’t be enough either. Another anti-inflammatory drug, Aceclofenac, turns into diclofenac in a cow’s body and kills vultures in the same way. Despite the evidence of this since 2012, the drug has not been banned. Safety tests are pending at the Indian Veterinary Research Institute.
“The Indian Veterinary Research Institute’s security screening work has progressed, but it has been a pace that will unfortunately not be fast enough to save vultures,” Bowden said. Injectable formulations of the drug that veterinarians like were recently approved by the Government of India.
Other legal veterinary medicines like nimesulide – widely used in India – and ketoprofen, both of which have been classified as fatal in vultures, are legal for veterinary use. Some other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs – all diclofenac-type drugs – have never been tested on vultures by drug companies or governments.
Now the Vulture Action Plan recommends bird feeding clinical trials for all nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and recommends that their manufacture should be dependent on the drugs that pass the test. The plan also creates a new avenue for the ban: drugs found to be fatal to vultures by a scientific study published in an internationally recognized journal can be withdrawn from the veterinary market.
“It’s an incredibly ambitious plan. And when you [the government] If you accomplish all that needs to be done in the next five years, five years from now the vultures will be in a far healthier position than they are now, ”said John Mallord, senior conservationist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and one of the authors of the covert pharmacy survey paper.
India’s efforts to protect its last remaining white vulture populations will depend on its ability to implement the five-year strategy, agreed Prakash, of the Bombay Natural History Society. “We have to follow the plan. We cannot have a relaxed attitude. “
Always ready for the wild
In the meantime, the other face of conservation efforts continues – breeding vultures and releasing them into the wild. Breeding stations like Pinjore feed wild vultures to introduce captive-reared birds to their wild counterparts. “We got about 200 wild vultures in three years of feeding them, and there was very good interactions between the caught and wild vultures,” said Prakash.
When the eight birds were released, they stayed in the aviary for many hours after the nets were opened. In the meantime, wild vultures continued to visit. “The birds did not go out at all for two days, the wild birds would come and one by one [the captive vultures] started going out, ”said Prakash.
The satellite tags on the eight white-backed vultures help the Pinjore Center staff monitor their movements – where they are walking around, what they are eating. “We are still monitoring and keeping an eye on them,” Prakash said four months after being released into the wild.
The eight birds will hover alone until February 2021 – around 50 km from the aviary. You haven’t joined the wild vultures yet. “Even though you are flying with them, they are sitting in different areas,” said Prakash. “We’re still delivering groceries, even though some of them have started to find groceries.” And so far there is no drug-related mortality, which is very good. “
This article first appeared on the third pole.