Wildlife & Biodiversity

Ban use of aceclofenac on cattle to save vultures, demands vet researchers

Test by Indian Veterinary Research Institute shows aceclofenac metabolises into killer diclofenac

By Shuchita Jha
Published: Monday 31 October 2022
Aceclofenac is a pro-drug of diclofenac and behaves similarly in domestic water buffalo as it does in domestic cattle, posing the same risk to vultures. Photo: iStock

Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) has demanded a ban on using aceclofenac in cattle after a new study showed that the drug metabolises into diclofenac in water buffaloes — as it does in cows.

IVRI and its collaborators conducted the study and found that aceclofenac was rapidly converted to diclofenac while injecting the same water buffaloes.

Such metabolisms pose a threat to vulture populations in the country. 

Diclofenac — an anti-inflammatory drug — was banned for veterinary use by the Government of India in 2006. It was found to be the main cause of a dramatic decline (99 per cent) of the vulture population across Asia.

The drug caused accidental poisoning in raptors after they fed on carcasses of cattle injected with it. Aceclofenac in water buffaloes poses the same threat to vultures as it is a pro-drug of diclofenac.

“This study alone gives ample evidence that aceclofenac almost immediately converts to diclofenac inside cattle and buffalo,” AM Pawde, a co-author of the study, told Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), a non-profit, according to a press release by SAVE.

It severely threatens vultures that feed on the carcasses of any recently treated animals, said Pawde, who is also the principal scientist and in charge of IVRI.

The researchers gave the recommended dose of aceclofenac to nine domestic water buffaloes. They collected blood samples at intervals of up to 48 hours. And carried out an analysis of aceclofenac and its metabolite diclofenac in their plasma.

It found that aceclofenac was rapidly converted to diclofenac in the water buffaloes too. Diclofenac was present in the plasma within 20 minutes of the treatment. The concentration reached its peak between four and eight hours. 

“Aceclofenac is a pro-drug of diclofenac and behaves similarly in domestic water buffalo as it does in domestic cattle, posing the same risk to vultures,” read the study. 

We recommend an immediate ban on the veterinary use of aceclofenac across vulture-range countries, it added.

Aceclofenac turns into diclofenac soon after it enters the livestock. It was almost impossible to distinguish while analysing the animal tissues, M Karikalan, another IVRI author, said. He said it was effectively the same as injecting diclofenac in the livestock.

Allowing the use of aceclofenac was a very unfortunate loophole in India’s vulture conservation, said Rhys Green of Cambridge University and chairman of SAVE.

It reverses all the earlier efforts to stabilise the vulture population in the country and prevent further decline, Green added.

Aceclofenac is an unnecessary threat to the scavenging birds since safe alternatives — meloxicam and tolfenamic acid — are available, said John Mallord, a senior scientist of the Royal Society for Protection of Birds.

Vulture Action Plan 2020-2025 also mentions the drug as ‘toxic’, asking the Drugs Controller General of India (DGCI) to ban its veterinary use — along with other drugs like nimesulide and ketoprofen.

Suppose a drug is found toxic by a scientific study and is published in an international journal. In that case, it should be automatically removed from the veterinary market once the technical committee of DCGI reviews the paper, it said.

After further evidence, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change and the DGCI should convert these findings into necessary action by banning the drug, said Bivash Pandav, director of Bombay Natural History and Society (BNHS).

A 2018 petition also demanded the DGCI to ban aceclofenac, but the case is still pending in Delhi High Court.

Wildlife Institute of India, BNHS and IVRI had written to DGCI and the Union health ministry demanding a ban on aceclofenac, but no action has been taken so far.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.