With evidence showing that ban on veterinary painkiller drug aceclofenac is overdue, SAVE — a consortium of regional and international organisations — has called upon the Indian government, specifically the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI), to take necessary steps for its nationwide ban.
The drug aceclofenac very quickly metabolises into diclofenac in cattle, and an important new study by the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) and collaborators shows that the same is true in water buffalo as well as in cows.
Diclofenac used as painkiller for cattle heads (now banned for veterinary use in many Asian countries) is well established as the main driver of the catastrophic vulture decline across Asia — so this finding is further proof that aceclofenac, which has already been put forward over four years ago as an unnecessary threat to vultures, should be totally banned.
Though safe alternatives (meloxicam and tolfenamic acid) are available, despite the earlier requests to the Indian government, and an ongoing Delhi High Court case, no such action has been taken so far, said SAVE.
Responding to the study, Chris Bowden, RSPB and SAVE Programme Manager, told IANS that it is already abundantly clear that this presents a major ongoing threat that is preventing vulture populations from recovering despite all the other efforts to prevent their extinction.
The Wildlife Division of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the Forest Department of Haryana provided facilities and funding to conduct the research.
A.M. Pawde, a co-author of the paper and principal scientist and in-charge of IVRI, said, “This study alone gives ample evidence that aceclofenac almost immediately converts to diclofenac inside cattle and also buffalo, and is therefore a very serious threat to vultures that feed on carcasses of any recently treated animals.”
Karikalan M., another IVRI author, said, “Aceclofenac is described as a pro-drug of diclofenac, and soon after it enters the livestock, it actually becomes diclofenac, and indeed, when analysing the animal tissues, it is almost impossible to distinguish. It is effectively the same as injecting directly with diclofenac which is already banned.”
SAVE Chairman Rhys Green from the Cambridge University added, “Knowing just how lethal diclofenac is to vultures, and the devastating effect it has had, it seems like a very unfortunate loophole to allow aceclofenac to be manufactured, sold and used in veterinary use, undoing all the earlier efforts to secure India’s vultures.”
John Mallord, a senior scientist of the RSPB, added, “There really doesn’t seem any need to use veterinary aceclofenac, especially now that there are proven safe alternatives with very similar properties, like tolfenamic acid and meloxicam.
“We are also hopeful that paracetamol can be added to the known vulture-safe list in the near future. But some more work is needed to fully confirm this.”
Bivash Pandav, Director, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), said, “Such work to test the safety of veterinary drugs for vultures is crucial, but the key step needed now is for the MoEFCC and the DCGI to convert these findings into necessary action — and in time to prevent their extinction, and help vultures recover from the devastating 98 per cent decline — so they can once again play their environmental role as nature’s cleaners.”
The crash in the population of vultures in India from estimated four crore in the early 1980s to less than a lakh by 2007 is unprecedented in the animal world.
To save them from certain extinction, the government of India’s Action Plan for Vulture Conservation in India, 2020-2025, which was presented to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) secretariat in 2020, advocates the prevention of misuse of veterinary non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) by ensuring their sale only on prescription.
The vulture conservation plan with an outlay of Rs 207.50 crore, part of the Gandhinagar Declaration adopted by CMS Parties in 2020, also strongly recommends that veterinary treatment should be given only by qualified veterinarians which would prevent overuse of NSAIDs in treating livestock as toxicity of most of the drugs is dose dependent.
Also, the scientific manner of disposal of livestock carcasses will ensure that the vultures do not get exposed to the carcasses of animals that died during treatment. This should be done as soon as possible, says the five-year plan.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)