Reduce size of banned drug vials to save vultures, say campaigners

Vishal Gulati

Mumbai, Sep 12 (IANS) Reduce the size of the vials of diclofenac, a drug for treating animals but banned in India after it was found to be the killer of the country's vulture population, suggests a paper.

To provide a safer environment for the vultures facing extinction, a scientific paper has recommended reducing the size of the vials of diclofenac meant for human use in India.

The paper, published recently in the Cambridge journal called Oryx, has found that over a third of Indian pharmacies end up selling diclofenac that is ultimately used by vets despite the ban because of the large ampoules in which the drug meant for human use is available.

The paper, co-authored by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Mumbai-based NGO engaged in nature conservation, and the Britain-based charitable organisation Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), highlights the need to sell human painkillers in small ampoules and on prescription only.

The veterinary drug diclofenac was banned in 2006 by the Indian government following a demand by the ornithologists that three of the nine species of vultures found in the country - white-backed, slender-billed and long-billed Gyps vultures - were almost extinct.

BNHS studies attribute their decline to the extensive use of diclofenac in treating cattle.The vultures that consumed the carcasses of animals treated with diclofenac died with symptoms of kidney failure.

'The manufacture and sale of diclofenac for veterinary use is illegal in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. But the availability of diclofenac for human use in large ampoules prompts farmers and livestock owners to use the same on their cattle. Smaller ampoules of diclofenac should be introduced for human use to discourage this practice,' said the study.

RSPB scientist Richard Cuthbert, who is the lead author of the paper, said 'the ban is still quite easily avoided since human formulations are available for sale in large vials which are convenient for use on large animals like cattle'.

The paper says there is need for imposing a ban on other painkillers that have been proved to be harmful for the vultures or are untested.

'Untested drugs such as nimesulide are widely available in the market. Ketoprofen, an alternative that has been tested to be fatal for vultures, has still not been banned. It's on sale for veterinary use in 29 percent of pharmacies,' said the paper.

However, a study conducted earlier by BNHS and RSPB has found that the proportion of cattle carcasses in India contaminated with diclofenac has declined.

The study published in US-based journal PloS ONE in May this year said the diclofenac ban in 2006 has slowed down vulture decline by over 40 percent.

Chris Bowden, vulture programme director with RSPB, who is monitoring the vulture breeding projects in India - in Pinjore in Haryana, Rani Forest in Assam and Rajabhat Khawa in West Bengal - told IANS: 'We don't think that diclofenac use by the vets has yet declined very significantly, partly because more vets are using human diclofenac instead of the veterinary formulations that have been banned.'

He said vets need to switch to using safe alternative drugs like meloxicam for vultures. 'The vultures will surely take years to recover even after diclofenac has been removed from the environment.'

BNHS director Asad Rahmani said: 'Diclofenac and other painkillers, which are harmful for the vultures, should be sold for human use based on a proper prescription from doctors. This will help in bringing some control on the illegal sale of diclofenac for veterinary use.'

From the mid-1990s, when vultures were among the most common birds in India, their number has declined drastically.

'The figures from 2007 census showed continuing decline in the vulture population in the wild. Almost 99.9 percent white-backed vultures had already gone in 2007. The other two species most seriously affected - slender-billed and long-billed - are also still declining,' added Bowden.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at