Wildlife & Biodiversity

Study finds even vultures in protected areas not safe from toxic drugs

New study contradicts the claim of vultures living in the wild are safe from painkiller diclofenac

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Tuesday 23 April 2024
Himalayan griffon vulture or Gyps himalayensis in Panna Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan. Photo: iStock

Vultures, including those residing in protected areas, continue to remain at immense risk of from diclofenac, a painkiller that is used for treating cattle. 

The drug was banned for use in veterinary practice across South Asia during the 1990s and early 2000s. In India, the use of diclofenac as a veterinary drug was banned in 2006 and gazetted in 2008.

The recent research from the National Centre for Biological Sciences-Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (NCBS-TIFR) in Bengaluru, published in the journal Nature, challenged the assumption that vultures living in protected areas and feeding on wild animal carcasses are safe from diclofenac poisoning.

Read more: Ban on more drugs harmful for vultures welcome move, but more stringent steps needed: Experts

The scientists examined the diet of vultures by analysing the deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, from 642 faecal samples collected from nesting and roosting sites in both protected and non-protected areas across Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

The samples were collected between 2018 and 2022, with 419 of them aiding in the identification of vulture species and their dietary patterns.

The scientists in their study found that a significant proportion of vulture faecal samples contained DNA from cows and water buffalo. “The genetic material of these domestic livestock was detected even in samples collected from within and near protected areas, where the birds forage,” the authors noted.

The authors suggested that the reason behind these findings could be the high density of livestock and the presence of free-ranging cattle within the protected areas. This could also be due to the extensive foraging range of vultures, which often extends to neighbouring countries.

Read more: International Vulture Awareness Day: What is the status of Indian vultures?

Even small amounts of the painkillers could lead to kidney failures among these scavengers, the scientists said. A single poisoned dead animal can impact many vultures as they feed on large groups. 

Besides diclofenac, Indian government has also banned ketoprofen and aceclofenac, although they are still manufactured for human use. The move came in August 2023. 

Vulture conservationists have also demanded a ban on  non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug nimesulide, which is also poses threat to vultures given their high toxicity.

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