When Livestock Medicines Nearly Made Vultures Extinct

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Garima PracherWhile the wildlife division of Karnataka Forest Department count the days to fly in the endangered vultures of Pinjore Vulture Conservation Breeding Center In Haryana, experts fear that killer nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), still widely used in and around the city, will undo the department’s efforts to stop the dwindling raptor population.

Experts say more needs to be done to keep these birds safe and it would be unethical to release them in the current scenario.

“Simply breeding vultures in captivity is not a solution in itself because we cannot safely release them. The main problem behind the decline of vulture populations has not been addressed and the damn drugs are still very much in the system. The risks of these critically endangered birds eating livestock carcasses with NSAIDs is still very high,” said Chris Bowden, co-chair, Vulture Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The drugs in question here are Diclofenac and its three alternatives: Aeclofenac, Ketoprofen and Nimesulide. While diclofenac, the main drug that drastically reduced the vulture population, has been banned in India, experts say its alternatives are still widely used in Bangalore and surrounding areas.

“Although there has not been a full-scale investigation, work has been done in the Ramanagaram area which has established that pharmacies are still supplying toxic drugs to vets and livestock owners,” added Chris.

Raptors prey on livestock carcasses in landfills and other places, ingesting NSAIDs

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Avian experts say it’s not just the open dumping of cattle carcasses with traces of NSAIDs, but the dumps also pose a threat to these critically endangered species.

“Raptors can fly more than a hundred kilometers in search of food every day. We monitored a few dumpsites in and around the area and found that carcass waste from nearby beef markets wrapped in plastic and jute bags is regularly dumped. We have seen Egyptian vultures using these landfills for food,” said Satyapramod HV, of Karnataka Vulture Conservation Trust.

Notably, the behavior of these scavenger birds, their movement pattern, etc., have not been studied in detail in the past. Likewise, there is no large-scale study to access samples of cattle carcasses in and around the city to understand if there are traces of NSAIDs.

“Before starting the breeding program and releasing the birds into the wild, we need to do extensive work to understand the amount of cattle carcasses thrown into the open and the amount of NSAIDs in the carcass,” said said Satyapramod.

Safe alternatives to NSAIDs

Meloxicam and tolfenamic acid are two safe alternatives to diclofenac and other harmful NSAIDs. Experts say the immediate priority is to ban drugs that are harmful to vultures.

“It’s doable because there are safer alternatives,” Bowden said. Notably, meloxicam, one of two safe NSAIDs, was tested on African vultures a few years ago and found to be safe. The drug has also been tested in India at several levels. It was released directly into the stomachs of raptors and other scavenger avian species.

buffaloes were injected with it and then slaughtered and fed to vultures to reproduce the situation in nature. The results showed that the drug is safe.

Experts say that although diclofenac was a late starter, it proved to be popular because its mechanism of action is much faster. Diclofenac is also economical. The patent was taken out a long time ago and several companies started manufacturing the drug, resulting in high supply and demand.

According to Dr. Percy Avari, Assistant Professor, Department of Poultry Science, Mumbai Veterinary Collegeharmful NSAIDs are still widely used because many veterinarians are still unconvinced of the usefulness of meloxicam and tolfenamic acid.

Also, many are unaware of the harmful effects of diclofenac, eclofenac, ketoprofen and nimesulide on vultures. “It is essential to educate the people who work in the field.

We should also research other safer alternatives so that vets have other options. Also, treatment of sick or geriatric cows with these harmful drugs should be completely stopped,” Dr. Avari said.

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