More than a decade after being banned, a vulture-toxic drug is still being prescribed in pharmacies across India, according to an undercover investigation led by a group of environmental organizations and universities.
In 2003, the widespread veterinary use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac in cattle was discovered to be decimating the most iconic birds in South Asia — Asian vultures — after entering the vultures’ food chain.
This environmental disaster caused 99.9 percent of white-rumped vultures and 97 percent of long and slender-billed vultures to be wiped out — a staggering 40 million birds — pushing these birds to the brink of extinction.
Governments were quick to react, with India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh banning the drug from veterinary practice.
Yet cattle carcasses in India continue to be found containing potentially lethal concentrations of diclofenac along with contaminated, dead vultures.
Worryingly, populations of these critically endangered birds were not showing significant signs of recovery.
The new study, published recently in the journal Bird Conservation International, set out to identify what non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs were being offered for sale for veterinary use.
From 2012 to 2017, members of the research team visited pharmacies and asked for drugs to treat their injured cow, buying the first drug that was offered.
This research was undertaken by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Centre for Conservation Science, the Bombay Natural History Society, Bird Conservation Nepal, IUCN Bangladesh, and the University of Cambridge.
John Mallord, the lead author of the study, said: “As the sale of diclofenac for veterinary use is illegal, if we were open about the reasons for the survey, and that we were vulture conservationists, pharmacists would be unlikely to offer us diclofenac.”
“We had to pretend to be livestock owners so we could get an unbiased picture of its availability.”
In India, trends in sales of different non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs varied between the different regions surveyed.
In the first year, diclofenac was still the most commonly offered non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug.
Whilst sales of diclofenac declined in some states, elsewhere there were actually increases.
In the five Indian states surveyed in the final year, 2017, diclofenac was still being offered by 10 to 46 percent of pharmacists.
Chris Bowden, Programme Manager of Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), told IANS: “The importance of these results is emphasized by the most recent published nationwide population surveys of vultures in India and Nepal.”
“In Nepal, there is evidence that vulture populations have begun to recover, but in India, they either continue to decline or, at best, are stable but at low levels and not yet showing signs of a recovery.”
However, the study had some positive findings.
Sales of diclofenac declined in all three countries over the course of the survey, although there was variation depending on the region.
Diclofenac virtually disappeared from the pharmacies in Nepal, with meloxicam, a vulture safe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, being the drug of choice for treating cattle.
In Bangladesh, the vulture-toxic drug ketoprofen was always more commonly sold than meloxicam, despite being also illegal and banned.
Vibhu Prakash, Deputy Director of Bombay Natural History Society said: “Although diclofenac, which is the most toxic drug to vultures, has been the main focus of our advocacy work, our study recorded 11 different non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, of which five are already known to be toxic to vultures.
“Where there is robust scientific evidence that drugs are toxic to vultures, governments within vulture range countries should implement bans on their veterinary use.
“This will require extensive safety testing of a range of drugs, which will also discover a further vulture-safe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, which will give farmers and veterinarians a choice, in addition to meloxicam.”