NEW DELHI--The Indian government has decided to phase out a widely used veterinary painkiller implicated in the catastrophic decline of vulture populations on the subcontinent. The decision marks a victory in a global campaign by ornithologists and environmentalists after some initial skepticism that the drug could be the cause.
Vultures play an important function in the food chain as a scavenger par excellence. But their once-abundant numbers have been declining for more than a decade. In 1999, the Bombay Natural History Society noted a 97% drop in the Oriental white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis) population at the world famous Keoladeo National Park, Rajasthan, and today the bird is considered to be critically endangered. Long-billed (Gyps indicus) and slender-billed (Gyps tenuirostris) vultures have suffered similar declines.
Studies in India, Pakistan, and Nepal have found extensive evidence of diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory analgesic, in dead vultures. The drug, presumably ingested when vultures feast on the carcasses of livestock who have been treated with it, can cause toxic levels of uric acid crystals to build up in the birds.
Last Thursday, at a meeting of the government-affiliated National Board for Wildlife, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh endorsed the board's recommendation to phase out the veterinary use of the drug over the next 6 months. Singh said that he expected the ministries of health and animal husbandry to promote alternatives, like ketoprofen and meloxicam, that are believed to be less toxic to the vultures.