30 Jul 2019

Cambodia bans veterinary drug Diclofenac to save vultures

Fantastic news for Asia's Critically Endangered vultures! Following tireless advocacy from NGOs including BirdLife, the Cambodian government has banned the veterinary use of Diclofenac: a drug used as a painkiller for cattle, but deadly to vultures.

All three of Cambodia's vulture species are Critically Endangered © Bou Vorsak / BirdLife Cambodia
All three of Cambodia's vulture species are Critically Endangered © Bou Vorsak / BirdLife Cambodia
By BirdLife International Cambodia Programme

Phnom Penh (29th July 2019)The Government of Cambodia has banned the veterinary sale and use of diclofenac in the country with immediate effect. The Government has taken this measure to safeguard the remaining Cambodian vulture population, which is declining and threatened with extinction. 

“Diclofenac, whilst harmless to cattle and other livestock, results in death of vultures if they feed on a carcass of an animal previously treated with this drug,” said Dr. Julia Stenkat, resident veterinarian of the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity. All vulture species occurring in the country are protected under Cambodian law. This precautionary measure by the Government of Cambodia will reduce the risk of accidental diclofenac poisoning, although the risk of poisoning from other agricultural chemicals like carbofuran remains an ever-present danger to Cambodia’s declining vultures.

The vulture population of India, formerly the largest in the world and numbering in the millions, suffered a 99% decline as a consequence of the veterinary use of diclofenac administered to cattle. The near disappearance of these important scavengers from the ecosystem resulted in a huge public health crisis as millions of cattle carcasses discarded daily in refuse dumps went uneaten. The feral dog population grew and this lead to an increased number of human deaths from rabies. In response, the Government of India banned the veterinary use of diclofenac and promoted meloxicam, a harmless and equally effective substitute drug. There is now evidence of vulture population recovery.

The Cambodia Vulture Working Group* (CVWG), a consortium of NGOs, has been championing the conservation of Cambodia’s vultures since 2004. Cambodia’s vultures are facing an increasingly high risk of extinction and continuous monitoring has shown a 50% decline. Poisoning and habitat loss are the main reasons for this collapse. 2019’s national census recorded only 120 vultures in the entire country.

In 2018 diclofenac was found on sale for the first time in Cambodia by the CVWG, who advocated a ban to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).  One year later on 15 July 2019 MAFF has issued a ban on the importation, sale and distribution (including a recall) of diclofenac for veterinary purposes, to preempt a similar catastrophe to India.

“The Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries recognizes the potential impact of a diclofenac ban on the Kingdom’s vultures and the consequences this could have for human health. MAFF is pleased to have worked with the CVWG to issue this ban,” said Dr. Nou Vonika, Director of Department of Animal Health and Veterinary Public Health, General Directorate of Animal Health and Production.

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“We applaud MAFF’s decision. It is one of critical steps aiming to prevent the extinction of Cambodia’s vultures impacted by diclofenac used for veterinary purpose. This decision needs to be circulated, enforced and monitored.” said Teak Seng, Country Director of WWF Cambodia.        

“The challenge now is to ensure the relevant provincial authorities are aware of the ban and have CVWG support to help enforce it” said NY Naiky, BirdLife International and CVWG coordinator who continued, “This preemptive measure by MAFF is most welcome, but poisoning of vultures with other agricultural chemicals including carbofuran, a deadly carbonate pesticide, is a major challenge.”

*The Cambodia Vulture Working Group core members are the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries, BirdLife International​ (Working Group Coordinator), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Angkor Centre for​​​​ Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB). The Cambodia vulture conservation project is funded by Allwetterzoo Münster, Humanscale, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Wildlife Reserves Singapore.