28 April : Diclofenac and vultures


Diciclofenac is an analgesic and anti-inflammatory drug used in the treatment of cattle and pigs. Inevitably some of these animals die and the trend is ti leave the carcasses at set feeding sites for vultures. However, when vultures ingest meat treated with this drug, the toxic effect on birds beciomes rapidly visible.  Within hours of consumption, death has taken place as a result of kidney failure.

The permitted use of diclofenac in veterinary medicine is permitted in Spain in two medications,  – Diclovet and Dolofenac – could jeopardise the viability of Europe’s most important breeding population of Griffon Vultures. A new study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology and authored by scientists and ornithologists from Cambridge University, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB; BirdLife International Partner in the UK), Doñana Biological Station (CSIC), Miguel Hernández University and University of Lleida show that vulture deaths in Spain are estimated to fall in the range 715-6.389 per year, a decline of 0.9-7.7% per annum.. Obviously a  situation such as these numbers indicate will at worst wipe out the Spanish population or cerainly reduce it to dangerously low levels in terms of viability.

Spain is home to more than 95% of the European breeding population of the Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus (about 26,000 pairs), but also because other threatened scavenging birds such as the Red Kite Milvus milvus, Spanish Imperial Eagle Aquila adalberti, Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus, Cinereous Vulture/Black Vulture Aegypius monachus and Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus also breed here. All of them are susceptible to the effects of veterinary diclofenac.
There is a non toxic drug - meloxicam, a vulture-safe alternative drug - which has the same beneficial effects of on livestock. The report reciommends the withdrawal of the use diclofenac and all drugs must be ‘target safe’ for other species.

Co-author of the study Professor Antoni Margalida said that apart from a precautionary ban, "animal carcasses favoured by vultures and carrion-scavenging birds found dead or dying at recovery centers need to be monitored for NSAID contamination".

The threat is not overexaggerated: Diclofenac provoked near extinction (~99%) of three vulture species on the Indian subcontinent in the '90s. "The Spanish government has a big responsibility to ban the use of diclofenac on farm animals, as well as responsibility for the conservation of the biggest populations of scavenging birds in the EU and one of the most important in the world. We just cannot afford to allow an environmental disaster to occur like it did in Asia," said Asunción Ruiz, SEO's (BirdLife in Spain) CEO.

The decline of vulture populations is bad news for people and the environment: vultures provide important ecosystem services by removing carcasses from the environment. This even contributes to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise result from the physical removal and incineration of carcasses.

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