Wildlife & Biodiversity

Gamechanger for India’s vultures: Experts laud Centre’s move to ban aceclofenac, ketoprofen

They also observed that the implementation of the ban would be the real test and that other raptors should also be provided similar safety from killer drugs

By Himanshu Nitnaware, Rajat Ghai
Published: Thursday 03 August 2023
Photo: iStock__

Experts who work on vultures have welcomed the Centre’s decision to prohibit the manufacture, sale and distribution of ketoprofen and aceclofenac. They said the move was a gamechanger for India’s beleaguered vultures.

They also observed that the implementation of the ban would be the real test and that other raptors (birds of prey) should also be provided similar safety from killer drugs.

The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare banned the manufacture, sale and distribution of ketoprofen and aceclofenac and their formulations for animal use under section 26A of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 (23 of 40) in a notification dated July 31, 2023.

“I did not expect the notification this fast. Gazetting the ban in just six weeks after a meeting of the Drugs Technical Advisory Board is fast indeed,” S Bharathidasan, founder of Arulagam, a non-profit that works towards the conservation of vultures in The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, told Down To Earth (DTE).

Alka Dubey, state advocacy officer from the Bombay Natural History Society, Uttar Pradesh, who initiated the appeal, said: “Though the decision has come from the central government, it is important to observe how the state and central play a role in implementing the ban.”

Dubey said there are many conflicting situations on the ground where people want to follow the ban or oppose it. “The central and state governments may impose a ban starting with the states implementing vulture conservation programmes,” she said.

Dubey added that Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka and West Bengal are among those who could implement the ban.

She said the ban is also immediate and no date is given for its implementation. “The states should take immediate cognisance of the directives and implement the ban. It will be the duty of Food and Drug Administration officials to ensure effective implementation of the ban,” Dubey told DTE.

Officials should also take due steps to create awareness among all stakeholders to improve effectiveness, she added.

“This is definitely a gamechanger for India’s vultures. There are in total six non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs toxic to vultures. The ban on usage of diclofenac in 2006, then in 2013 and now this one has a huge gap. But it is a welcome move as we have been trying for the same since years now. Nimesulide is also a major threat to vultures with its proven toxicity. We must also focus on introducing more alternate safe drugs for vultures and other raptors. We need to assess deaths in other raptor species due to chemicals and secondary poisoning,” Rinkita Gurav, manager (raptor conservation), World Wildlife Fund for Nature, told DTE.

“Vultures live in large colonies and hence, can be detected when they die. But other raptors are often solitary or live in pairs. They may not be detected easily if they die due to such lethal chemicals. More testing should be done to know whether a drug is safe for other raptors too,” Gurav said.

“This step will have a very big impact because as soon as aceclofenac is given to any animal, it gets converted to diclofenac. In fact, diclofenac remains longer in the body because of aceclofenac than if diclofenac alone is injected. So, banning of aceclofenac is a very good and positive development and will certainly help the vulture population,” Vibhu Prakash, also from BNHS and synonymous with vulture conservation in India, told DTE.

He added that nimesulide and other lethal drugs should also be banned.

India’s vulture populations crashed in the 1990s due to the use of diclofenac, a pain reliever administered to cattle. Vultures feeding on cattle carcasses used to die extremely painful deaths as the drug entered their system.

In 2004, it was found that diclofenac was the cause of vulture deaths and that 97 per cent of the population had been lost till then. The main species affected were oriental white-backed vultures, long-billed vultures and slender-billed vultures.

That same year, the Indian government along with other agencies came up with a Vulture Recovery Plan which recommended banning the veterinary use of diclofenac, finding its substitute and set up conservation breeding centres for vultures.

A primary reason behind forming such a plan was that vultures are slow breeders that live long. If the annual mortality rate increases to more than five per cent, the spectre of extinction looms large.

The Vulture Recovery Plan was incorporated into the Action Plan for Vulture Conservation 2006. The use of diclofenac as a veterinary drug was banned in 2006 and gazetted in 2008. It was also recommended in the same notification that another drug, meloxicam should be used.

The Centre also restricted the vial size of diclofenac for human use to just three millilitres after it was found that people were using diclofenac meant for humans in cattle.

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