Death by Diclofenac – Save the Indian Vulture.

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Indian vulture pair (Gyps indicus) at Ramadevarabetta, 50 km from Bangalore. © SK Srinivas

The Indian vulture is close to extinction.

There was a time when nine different vulture species ruled the Indian skies. Now, this majestic genus of scavengers is officially listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered – and that’s one step away from extinction. Once upon a time, there were 80 million vultures in India. Now, there are a few thousand left.

The primary cause for the eradication of vulture populations is absurdly simple – a drug called diclofenac.diclofenac

This drug is a popular pain-killer, commonly prescribed by doctors and also available over the counter without a prescription. Diclofenac is used, or rather misused, by people who use animals for hard labor, in villages and cities across India. You see, the drug reduces muscle soreness and joint pain. That allows people to push their animals harder and harder, until they die from sheer exhaustion.

After death, people simply discard the carcasses for scavengers to feed on. The problem is, many bird species cannot tolerate diclofenac. Unlike humans, Indian vultures lack certain enzymes that are needed to break down diclofenac. As a result, diclofenac is extremely toxic to vultures. It causes acute liver and kidney failure. Vultures die within hours of ingesting flesh that contains even traces of diclofenac.

This was discovered only in 2003. Less than a decade later, vulture populations in India have fallen by 98%. That’s ninety-eight percent. Although diclofenac was officially banned for veterinary use in 2006, its illegal use still continues.

If vultures become extinct in India, what will follow is chaos. The vulture is a perfect scavenger. This is because its stomach acid is so strong that it destroys almost all pathogenic germs, thereby putting a dead stop to diseases that can arise from rotting carcasses.

If vultures do not exist, their place will be taken by rats and stray dogs, with catastrophic consequences. Rats and dogs are inefficient scavengers and they readily transmit germs from rotting carcasses to humans. As it is, India has the world’s largest population of stray dogs – and the world’s highest number of deaths due to rabies. At any given hour in India, there are two deaths due to rabies and one thousand eight hundred dog bites.

That situation will get far worse when there will be a huge increase in rats and feral dogs, after vultures go extinct. We can expect widespread epidemics of rabies, plague, anthrax and leptospirosis.

The economic costs will be astronomical, estimated at a BILLION dollars per annum.

There are some groups of deeply worried people that are fighting to save the vulture, with limited success. Vulture populations continue to decline, however, largely due to public apathy.

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Pair of Egyptian vultures, at Ramadevarabetta. © SK Srinivas

In South India, one nesting site for vultures is Ramadevarabetta, a rocky hill at Ramanagaram, about 50km from Bangalore. This place is better known as Ramgad, where India’s most successful movie, Sholay was filmed from 1973 to 1975.

Once, Ramadevarabetta had hundreds of vultures.  Now, you’re lucky if you sight any. The Karnataka government made the site a preserve for vultures and banned the veterinary use of diclofenac, with negligible effect.

What can you do as an individual? Simple. Stop using diclofenac and other fenac painkillers, for your aches and pains. There are many effective painkillers available to you, that are not toxic to vultures and other birds, like piroxicam, meloxicam, paracetamol, and celecoxib, to name a few. Tell your doctor not to prescribe anything containing diclofenac and closely related drugs like aceclofenac.

Be nice to the Vulture. Or watch your childrens’ future go the dogs – literally.

NO cheers … Srini.

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7 thoughts on “Death by Diclofenac – Save the Indian Vulture.

  1. Thank you for creating this awareness. I had heard that there was some medicine which was the root cause but didn’t know which. Also, I read something about the pesticides that are used – which get into the body of the cattle but doesn’t suit the vultures.

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    1. It has reduced somewhat, but the illegal use of diclofenac still goes on. Only a total ban on its manufacture will have an effect. But that is unlikely to happen because pharma manufacturers would object. That is why people like me are trying to spread awareness about the issue. Srini.

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