By Kevin Heath
Europe has failed to take notice of the Asian experience with the cattle drug Diclofenac as it becomes more widely available on the continent. Used to treat animals for inflammation and other diseases vultures are unable to break down the chemical and die from renal failure. The impact of the drug was quick and devastating with vulture populations in India during the 1980′s running at millions of birds to barely a few thousand remaining by the late 1990′s.
Despite the drug being banned by India in March 2006, Nepal in August 2006 and Pakistan in late 2006 the drug has been authorised for use in Spain where 80% of European vultures live. There is no need for Diclofenac to be licensed for use in Europe as Meloxicam has the same effects on livestock but without being toxic to vultures.
Could the devastation of Asia – where over 99% of vultures died in just over a decade – be replicated in Europe? The drug is particularly toxic to vultures. A study in 2003 by Dr. Lindsay Oaks to try to find out what was killing all the vultures in India discovered just how toxic the drug was to the birds. The researchers concluded that if just 1% of dead livestock on by vultures had been treated with Diclofenac the impact would be catastrophic on vulture populations. In reality over 10% of animal carcasses had been previously treated with the drug.
While the drug was in use in Asia the impact on vultures numbers was substantial – between 1993 and 2002:
- White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis) fell 99.7%
- Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus) fell 97.4%
- Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) fell 97.4%
The sudden drop in numbers of vultures saw major increases in other scavengers such as wild dogs and rats which also carries diseases that are not present in vultures. The loss of the vultures led to major public health implications through the growth in diseased carrying scavengers.
While the drug has been produced and used in Italy for many years the implication of Spain now allowing the drug to be used in livestock is worrying conservationists. The drug was licensed for use in Spain last year. While risk assessments were done there was no advice taken from bird conservationists and no impact assessment done to consider the risks to vultures.
One of the lead organisations in helping to coordinated an alliance of conservation organisations is the Vulture Conservation Foundation. The new alliance aims to help highlight the issue to the public and to campaign to the European Union to ban the use of veterinary diclofenac.
The VCF has submitted to the European Union, together with other organisations, a formal request for the EU to start a referral procedure for a withdrawal of the marketing authorization of diclofenac, under Article 35 of Directive 2001/82/EC, based on the risks for vulture populations in Europe.
The VCF and BirdLife International have been working with national organisations in a number of countries so that they also formally ask their respective governments to push for this referral procedure – so far this request has been sent to the Greek, Finish, Bulgarian, Spanish, French, Belgian and German governments.
The risk to vultures is fully understood and the company marketing diclofenac has already released an advisory (in 27th February 2014) for farmers not to use the drug in vulture habitat regions:
Risk consumption of diclofenac in carcasses for vultures
Despite considering the risk to vultures virtually nonexistent due to strict control in the management of dead bodies in the Spanish farms and the huge responsibility on the part of farmers and veterinarians in the use of pharmacological products, Fatro Ibérica, in agreement with the Spanish Agency Medicines recommends not administering the product to animals that may be susceptible to enter the food chain of wildlife.
Fatro concienciada Ibérica is the need for conservation of wildlife and respects and supports the conservation work of associations and institutions have warned of this hazard.
One problem with the issue of this notice by the company, as welcome as it is, is that livestock movements around Europe are frequent and regular. Modern livestock raising will see animals moved across countries during various stages of their life. Animals may be treated with Diclofenac in one part of Spain or other European country and then be moved to a vulture habitat area.
With safe alternatives to the drug readily available there is no real need for diclofenac to be licensed as a livestock drug within Europe.
In addition to the lobbying of officials and ministers by conservationists there is also an online petition that can be signed calling on the EU to commit to a ban on veterinary use of the drug.