27 Oct 2017

India closes the loophole threatening the recovery of Asia's vultures

This week, the Indian Government took an important step towards preventing the extinction of Asia’s Critically Endangered vultures by upholding the ban on large vials of diclofenac, a painkiller that is fatal to vultures. The judge was on the vultures’ side throughout, preferring to call them “sanitary workers” rather than “scavenging birds”.

The White-rumped Vulture is one of four critically endangered vulture species benefiting from the ban © Lip Kee
The White-rumped Vulture is one of four Critically Endangered vulture species benefiting from the ban © Lip Kee
By Jessica Law

Despite pleas from two major pharmaceutical companies, on the 25th of October the Madras High Court upheld the ban on large “multi-dose” vials of diclofenac, of a large enough volume to be used on livestock for veterinary purposes. The illegal practice was banned in India in 2006 after years of lobbying from environmental groups like the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS, BirdLife in India) and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK). This was after it was revealed that traces of diclofenac in livestock carcasses were triggering large-scale poisonings of vultures across the country, leading to population collapses of up to 99.9% in some species.

Yet despite the ban, pharmacies continued to sell the drug in suspiciously large 30ml multi-dose packets allegedly for human use, but frequently diverted to animals as a slightly cheaper option than its legal, and vulture-safe, alternatives (such as meloxicam). In 2015 the Indian Government banned these large packets too, limiting vial sizes to 3ml, and stood their ground despite the protests of big names in the pharmaceutical industry.

A "cynical" way for pharmaceutical companies to facilitate illegal use of the drug

Achieving and maintaining the ban has always been a priority for SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction, a consortium of conservation groups including BirdLife International). SAVE programme manager Chris Bowden said:

“There is really no legitimate need for larger vials in human medicine, so the production of the larger vials has been a cynical way that the pharmaceutical companies have been facilitating illegal use of the drug.”

“We warmly welcome this ruling which is an important step for vulture conservation in the region, and credit to the Indian authorities for upholding this important measure.”

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

“The court battle has taken over two years, and I have done my best to attend most of the hearings, submitting relevant scientific documents”, says Bharathidasan S. of SAVE associate Arulagam. Core SAVE partner BNHS was also a vital presence throughout the proceedings.

Authoring the judgement for the bench, Justice M. Sundar highlighted Gyps bengalensis (the White-rumped Vulture), Gyps tenuirostris (the Slender-billed Vulture) and Gyps indicus (the Indian Vulture) as the key species that will benefit from the new law.

India, Nepal and Pakistan were the first to lead the ban in 2006, with Bangladesh following suit in 2010. Thanks to the ban, and our hard work introducing Vulture Safe Zones, South Asia’s Critically Endangered vulture populations have been stabilizing, albeit at precariously low levels, since 2012.  

The hope is that, if India’s support and pride in its vultures continues, they may soon be on the road to a full recovery. This fantastic news comes at a time when we’re lobbying for an international Multi-Species Action Plan to combat the vulture crisis.

For more on the African-Eurasian Vulture Crisis, see www.birdlife.org/savevultures