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The catastrophic declines of three species of ‘Critically Endangered’ Gyps vultures in South Asia were caused by unintentional poisoning by the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) diclofenac. Despite a ban on its veterinary use in 2006 (India, Nepal, Pakistan) and 2010 (Bangladesh), residues of diclofenac have continued to be found in cattle carcasses and in dead wild vultures. Another NSAID, meloxicam, has been shown to be safe to vultures. From 2012 to 2018, we undertook covert surveys of pharmacies in India, Nepal and Bangladesh to investigate the availability and prevalence of NSAIDs for the treatment of livestock. The purpose of the study was to establish whether diclofenac continued to be sold for veterinary use, whether the availability of meloxicam had increased and to determine which other veterinary NSAIDs were available. The availability of diclofenac declined in all three countries, virtually disappearing from pharmacies in Nepal and Bangladesh, highlighting the advances made in these two countries to reduce this threat to vultures. In India, diclofenac still accounted for 10–46% of all NSAIDs offered for sale for livestock treatment in 2017, suggesting weak enforcement of existing regulations and a continued high risk to vultures. Availability of meloxicam increased in all countries and was the most common veterinary NSAID in Nepal (89.9% in 2017). Although the most widely available NSAID in India in 2017, meloxicam accounted for only 32% of products offered for sale. In Bangladesh, meloxicam was less commonly available than the vulture-toxic NSAID ketoprofen (28% and 66%, respectively, in 2018), despite the partial government ban on ketoprofen in 2016. Eleven different NSAIDs were recorded, several of which are known or suspected to be toxic to vultures. Conservation priorities should include awareness raising, stricter implementation of current bans, bans on other vulture-toxic veterinary NSAIDs, especially aceclofenac and nimesulide, and safety-testing of other NSAIDs on Gyps vultures to identify safe and toxic drugs.
Populations of Critically Endangered White-rumped Gyps bengalensis and Slender-billed G. tenuirostris Vultures in Nepal declined rapidly during the 2000s, almost certainly because of the effects of the use in livestock of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac, which is nephrotoxic to Gyps vultures. In 2006, veterinary use of diclofenac was banned in Nepal and this was followed by the gradual implementation, over most of the geographical range of the two vulture species in Nepal, of a Vulture Safe Zone (VSZ) programme to advocate vulture conservation, raise awareness about diclofenac, provide vultures with NSAID-free food and encourage the veterinary use in livestock of a vulture-safe alternative NSAID (meloxicam). We report the results of long-term monitoring of vulture populations in Nepal before and after this programme was implemented, by means of road transects. Piecewise regression analysis of the count data indicated that a rapid decline of the White-rumped Vulture population from 2002 up to about 2013 gave way to a partial recovery between about 2013 and 2018. More limited data for the Slender-billed Vulture indicated that a rapid decline also gave way to partial recovery from about 2012 onwards. The rates at which populations were increasing in the 2010s exceeded the upper end of the range of increase rates expected in a closed population under optimal conditions. The possibility that immigration from India is contributing to the changes cannot be excluded. We present evidence from open and undercover pharmacy surveys that the VSZ programme had apparently become effective in reducing the availability of diclofenac in a large part of the range of these species in Nepal by about 2011. Hence, community-based advocacy and awareness-raising actions, and possibly also provisioning of safe food, may have made an important contribution to vulture conservation by augmenting the effects of changes in the regulation of toxic veterinary drugs.
Populations of the White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis, Indian Vulture G. indicus and Slender-billed Vulture G. tenuirostris declined rapidly during the mid-1990s all over their ranges in the Indian subcontinent because of poisoning due to veterinary use of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac. This paper reports results from the latest in a series of road transect surveys conducted across northern, central, western and north-eastern India since the early 1990s. Results from the seven comparable surveys now available were analysed to estimate recent population trends. Populations of all three species of vulture remained at a low level. The previously rapid decline of White-rumped Vulture has slowed and may have reversed since the ban on veterinary use of diclofenac in India in 2006. A few thousand of this species, possibly up to the low tens of thousands, remained in India in 2015. The population of Indian Vulture continued to decline, though probably at a much slower rate than in the 1990s. This remains the most numerous of the three species in India with about 12,000 individuals in 2015 and a confidence interval ranging from a few thousands to a few tens of thousands. The trend in the rarest species, Slender-billed Vulture, which probably numbers not much more than 1,000 individuals in India, cannot be determined reliably.
The Upper Mustang region of Nepal holds important breeding populations of Himalayan Griffon Gyps himalayensis. Despite this species being considered ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List, the population in Upper Mustang had declined substantially in the early to mid-2000s. During that period, the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac was commonly used to treat illness and injury in domesticated ungulates throughout Nepal. The timing and magnitude of declines in Himalayan Griffon in Upper Mustang resemble the declines in resident populations of the ‘Critically Endangered’ White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis and Slender-billed Vulture Gyps tenuirostris in Nepal, both of which are also known to be highly sensitive to diclofenac. Since 2006, the veterinary use of diclofenac has been banned in Nepal to prevent further vulture declines. In this paper, we analyse the population trend in Himalayan Griffon in Upper Mustang between 2002 and 2014 and show a partial recovery. We conclude that the decline is now occurring at a slower rate than previously observed and immigration from areas where diclofenac was either not or rarely used the probable explanation for the recovery observed.
The collapse of South Asia's Gyps vulture populations is attributable to the veterinary use of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) diclofenac. Vultures died after feeding on carcasses of recently-medicated animals. The governments of India, Nepal and Pakistan banned the veterinary use of diclofenac in 2006. We analysed results of 62 necropsies and 48 NSAID assays of liver and/or kidney for vultures of five species found dead in India between 2000 and 2012. Visceral gout and diclofenac were detected in vultures from nine states and three species: Gyps bengalensis, Gyps indicus and Gyps himalayensis. Visceral gout was found in every vulture carcass in which a measurable level of diclofenac was detected. Meloxicam, an NSAID of low toxicity to vultures, was found in two vultures and nimesulide in five vultures. Nimesulide at elevated tissue concentrations was associated with visceral gout in four of these cases, always without diclofenac, suggesting that nimesulide may have similar toxic effects to those of diclofenac. Residues of meloxicam on its own were never associated with visceral gout. The proportion of Gyps vultures found dead in the wild in India with measurable levels of diclofenac in their tissues showed a modest and non-significant decline since the ban on the veterinary use of diclofenac. The prevalence of visceral gout declined less, probably because some cases of visceral gout from 2008 onwards were associated with nimesulide rather than diclofenac. Veterinary use of nimesulide is a potential threat to the recovery of vulture populations.
Three Critically Endangered Gyps vultures endemic to South Asia continue to decline due to the use of diclofenac to treat livestock. High nephrotoxicity of diclofenac to Gyps vultures, leading to death, has been established by experiment and observation, in four out of five Gyps vulture species which occur in South Asia. Declines have also been observed in South Asia’s four other non-Gyps vulture species, but to date there has been no evidence about the importance of diclofenac as a potential cause. Neither is there any evidence on the toxicity of diclofenac to the Accipitridae other than vultures. In this study, gross and microscopic lesions and diclofenac tissue levels in Steppe Eagles Aquila nipalensis found at a cattle carcass dump in Rajasthan, India, show evidence of the toxicity of diclofenac for this species. These findings suggest the possibility that diclofenac is toxic to other accipitrid raptors and is therefore a potential threat to much wider range of scavenging species in South Asia.
Populations of three vulture species of the genus Gyps, the Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus and Red-headed Vulture Sarcogyps calvus have declined markedly on the Indian subcontinent since the mid-1990s and all are now Critically Endangered or Endangered. Gyps vultures have been killed by the widely used non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac, ingested when they feed on carcasses of domesticated ungulates treated with the drug shortly before death. However, it is not known whether Egyptian Vulture and Red-headed Vulture are also sensitive to diclofenac. Veterinary use of diclofenac was banned in India in 2006. Since then, the prevalence and concentration of diclofenac in domesticated ungulates carcasses has decreased and population declines of Gyps vultures have slowed or reversed. Here, we examine counts of Egyptian and Red-headed Vultures obtained on road transects in and near protected areas between 1992 and 2011. We found indications that the declines in both species appear to have slowed and possibly increased after the ban was introduced, though the small numbers of birds counted make this conclusion less robust than that for the Gyps species. These results suggest that both species may have been adversely impacted by diclofenac and that government bans on this drug, which are beginning to take effect, may benefit a wider range of vulture species in the Indian subcontinent than was previously thought.
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