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Asia
3 Apr 2017

One quarter of Bangladesh is safe from recently exposed vulture-killing drug

After successfully banning two drugs poisonous to vultures, Bangladesh is leading the way in Asian vulture conservation, and moving towards banning a third

Red-headed Vulture © Jonathan Eames
Red-headed Vulture (Critically Endangered) © Jonathan Eames
By Shaun Hurrell

You may not remember how to pronounce it, but you quite possibly have heard of “diclofenac”, the vulture-killing drug which caused the most dramatic bird decline in modern history, wiping out over 99% of Asia’s vultures in the 1990s. If not, then after hearing that, you will surely not forget it. Day to day, concerned owners of livestock use non-sterroidal anti-inflammatories like diclofenac to alleviate pain in their animals. Unfortunately, once these animals die and are consumed by vultures, these drugs cause excruciating pain, kidney failure, and death to the birds.

All four of Asia’s resident vulture species have been listed as Critically Endangered since the diclofenac problem was exposed in the early 2000s (see below). Through the SAVE Partnership (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction), BirdLife and the RSPB (BirdLife UK) have been working to ban diclofenac in Asian countries and tackling other endangered vulture conservation issues, including creating protected “Vulture Safe Zones”. However, a suite of other replacement non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs have been exposed that pose lethal risk to vultures, such as “ketoprofen”.

Diclofenac was successfully banned in Bangladesh in 2010, and a further drug “aceclofenac” has similarly been outlawed. “Banning aceclofenac was another important step,” says Chris Bowden, Programme Manager of SAVE, and RSPB.

“It combated what can only be described as a ‘cynical exploitation of a loophole’ by drug companies, as aceclofenac is quickly converted to deadly diclofenac in a treated animal. This has been demonstrated experimentally and published by our SAVE research team.”

However ketoprofen quickly became the main replacement in Bangladesh—but this too has been shown to cause similar kidney failure and lingering death in vultures.

Thankfully, the Bangladesh government has now also declared a ban of ketoprofen in two Vulture Safe Zones—crucial areas for these birds which span 25% of the country. This includes the Bangladesh Directorate General of Drug Administration (DGDA) has banned manufacturers of ketoprofen from selling, distributing, storing and exhibiting the drug in the Vulture Safe Zones. BirdLife applauds the Bangladesh government’s decision as this sets a great precedent for extending the ban to the entire country.

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These decisions come as a cumulative result of two years of extensive groundwork done for vulture conservation in the country, and highlighted by SAVE.

“This is a crucial step which we hope will push vets and farmers to switch to using vulture-safe alternative drugs such as ‘meloxicam’,” says Bowden. “This is also an important precedent for the other South Asian countries to follow.”

In 2014, Bangladesh was the first government worldwide to approve the declaration of Vulture Safe Zones. Then, supported by IUCN Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Forest Department and Ministry of Environment & Forest, a team was trained to take extensive measures in the huge 100 km radius area to prevent vulture deaths, involving intensive advocacy and awareness work with vets, farmers, drug suppliers and all relevant authorities.

Diclofenac: banned in Bangladesh. Now, a new drug is on the way to being banned completely © Chris Gommersal/RSPB

Other developments in Bangladeshi vulture conservation include the approval of a National Vulture Conservation Action Plan for the long term conservation of vulture species, and the construction of a new rescue centre in the north of the country.

However, Europe has not yet learnt from Asian mistakes, and in 2014 we learned that diclofenac was made available on the EU market, including Spain where 80% of European vultures live. This sparked our ongoing campaign to completely ban the use of veterinary diclofenac in Europe too, which you can support.

Unless you plan on having a “sky burial” (a 3,000-year old Parsi tradition with an uncertain future owing to lack of vultures), then these drugs should be safe for us humans to use; but make sure you don’t forget the names “diclofenac”, “aceclofenac” and “ketoprofen” (and others listed below) and help us spread the use of alternatives such as “meloxicam” amongst vets, farmers, drug stores and suppliers in Asia and Europe.

More information:

Towards a ketoprofen ban in Bangladesh (SAVE website)

 

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) Alert:

Vulture-toxic NSAIDs:

  • Diclofenac
  • Aceclofenac
  • Ketoprofen
  • Nimesulide
  • Flunixin
  • Carprofen
  • Phenylbutazone

Meloxicam remains the only known vulture-safe NSAID.

 

Asia’s Critically Endangered vultures

Indian Vulture Gyps indicus

Slender-billed Vulture Gyps tenuirostris

Red-headed Vulture Sarcogyps calvus

White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis