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Hope for Indian Vultures: Cooperation Following Drug Ban

Oct 23, 2014 06:25 PM EDT
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white rumped vulture
Indian veterinarians and livestock farmers seem to be complying with the ban of a drug that has nearly eliminated local vulture populations. Now experts are saying that these vultures are no longer on the decline, giving conservationists hope for a steady recovery.
(Photo : Flickr: John Haslam)

Numerous surveys of vulture populations in India have shown that the birds are in dire straits, and have been for the last decade and-a-half. These avian scavengers were once hugely prevalent in the country, but have declined in population by a stunning 99 percent since 1992.

So what's to blame? Extensive research has identified the cause of the decline to be diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) used to treat livestock, according to an updated case study compiled by Bird Life International.

The vultures, who are corpse-eaters crucial to any arid ecosystem, were feeding on deceased livestock treated with the drug, unwittingly poisoning themselves en masse. Once made aware of this tragedy, the Indian government banned veterinary diclofenac back in 2006.

Now, new studies are finally finding that the ban is letting vulture populations recover, albeit extremely slowly.

A 2013 study published in the journal PLOS One found that the rapid and worrying decline in vulture numbers had slowed or ceased in some parts of the Indian subcontinent between 2007 and 2011. (Scroll to read on...)

White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis) - juvenile
(Photo : Flickr - Lip Kee) White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis) - juvenile

A newer study still, published just this week in The Royal Society: Biological Sciences, details how there is strong evidence that Indian farmers and veterinarians are actually taking it upon themselves to not use diclofenac, despite the fact that many report the Indian  government doing very little to enforce the 2006 ban.

The study, led by Rhys Green at the University of Cambridge - the same team of researchers who conducted the PLOS study - collected more than 6,000 liver samples from livestock carcasses found across India between 2005 and 2009. During that time, the presence of diclofenac fell by 50 percent, and the presence of meloxicam - a vulture-safe drug offered as an alternative to veterinarians - increased by 44 percent.

According to the authors, what's stunning about these results is the fact that diclofenac is far cheaper than meloxicam and more readily available to veterinarians. Human diclofenac is sold in large vials that are usually far from empty by the time a patient no longer needs it. These vials can then be cheaply sold to livestock farmers and vets at a significantly reduced price.

Still, with a 50 percent drop in use, that shows that at least some professionals are taking the ban, and the drug's threat to vultures, quite seriously, and that's always good news.

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