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New drug threatens India's endangered vultures

by Staff Writers
New Delhi (AFP) Dec 15, 2009
Scientists who helped secure a ban on a cattle medicine blamed for plummeting vulture populations in India are scratching their heads after a replacement drug also proved lethal to the birds.

Vultures, which have almost mythical status across much of the world, have become an endangered species in India due to their vulnerability to drugs found in the carrion they eat.

Their near total disappearance from Indian skies was principally attributed to diclofenac, a drug used to treat colic in cattle but which causes a deadly kidney ailment in vultures known as visceral gout.

After diclofenac was first introduced in the mid-1990s the populations of white-backed, slender-billed and long-billed vultures fell by more than 95 percent.

When the drug was finally banned three years ago, conservationists hoped for a turn-around. But tests have now revealed that another drug used as a substitute is also harmful.

Wildlife group Birdlife International said that "researchers looking into safe alternatives have now identified that a second livestock treatment in Asia -- ketoprofen -- is also lethal to the birds.

"Ketoprofen could already be contributing to further declines of the remaining vulture populations caused by diclofenac and this is a trend likely to increase," it said.

Campaigners, who lobbied hard to get diclofenac banned in India in 2006, had predicted the substitute drug would pose little harm to vultures as it is metabolised rapidly by cows into a form that was thought harmless.

But though not as toxic as diclofenac, "bigger doses of ketoprofen are lethal for the birds," Chris Bowden, vulture programme manager at Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told AFP by phone.

A 2007 study by the Bombay Natural History Society, a conservation group, estimated there were only about 11,000 white-backed, 1,000 slender-billed and 44,000 long-billed vultures in India.

In the 1980s, the graceful birds were found in their millions across India but now the few survivors are mainly restricted to protected wildlife parks and nature reserves.

As effective natural scavengers they play a key role in India, where cows -- sacred in the Hindu religion -- are left out in the open when they die.

Followers of the Parsi faith, a tiny minority, also depend on vultures for disposal of their corpses as they consider that burial or burning of human remains pollutes the natural elements.

Conservationists are now pushing for another drug to be used by farmers in a last-ditch effort to save the vultures.

"Only meloxicam has been established as a safe alternative for vultures, while at the same time being an effective drug for treating cattle," Vibhu Prakash, who runs a captive breeding centre for vultures at Pinjore in northern India, said.

"Vultures are slow-breeding birds," he told AFP. "Females lay one or two eggs at a time. So it will take at least a decade to assess whether the species can recover."

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