New Delhi, Aug 8: The Central government has finally imposed a long-awaited ban on two veterinary painkiller ketoprofen and aceclofenac drugs, considered a commonly used drug for cattle but deadly for vultures, to rapidly halt current population declines in four vulture species that have declined by up to 99.9 per cent.
This decision is being seen as the biggest step since 2006 when the government banned veterinary use of diclofenac that almost completely wiped out vulture populations across Asia since the 1990s.
Both of the newly-banned drugs are frequently used by vets to treat cattle across the region in place of the earlier banned diclofenac, vulture experts told IANS.
The Drugs Technical Advisory Board of India has recommended nationwide ban on manufacture, sale, and distribution of two non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as they are as toxic as the banned diclofenac.
Hailing the decision, the SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction) Programme, a consortium of regional and international organisations, on Tuesday welcomed the prompt action to notification by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to provide legal reinforcement of national bans of the two veterinary drugs.
The gazette notification comes in the wake of recommendations last month.
“This is a highly significant step for vulture conservation, although further steps are still needed,” SAVE said in a statement.
The Union Health Ministry and the Central Drugs Standards Control Organisation followed by a ruling of the Delhi High Court in response to a vulture conservation petition submitted by advocate Gaurav Kumar Bansal.
This decision follows many years of safety testing and peer-reviewed publication of research results by the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI), Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and other SAVE Partners.
Chris Bowden, SAVE Programme Manager and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) expert, told IANS: “The latest bans are a huge step in the right direction for the future of vultures in India, and the Indian government is showing other countries what is needed for vulture conservation.
“Once nimesulide is also banned and indeed a future testing protocol before drug licensing, then we really will celebrate knowing the future of these majestic environmental cleaners is far more secure.”
SAVE chair Jemima Parry-Jones said: “This shows how long-term efforts are now being heeded, and the formal notification and legislation coming swiftly after the Advisory Board recommendation is a further credit to the Indian government in leading the way for the region.”
Trivani Dutt, Director, ICAR-IVRI, also welcomed the decision banning NSAIDs toxic to vultures to save these most threatened species.
Another veterinary drug, nimesulide, has also been shown to be toxic to vultures. Evidence published by SAVE partners and by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) has shown that vultures treated with the drug are killed and also that deaths of wild vultures in India are linked to the use of this approved drug.
SAVE hopes that the Drugs Technical Advisory Board of India will soon recommend that veterinary use of this drug should also be banned.
Peer-reviewed publications demonstrated the toxicity of ketoprofen to vultures back in 2010, leading to immediate calls for bans on its veterinary use, but despite this there had been no such bans on a national scale until 2021 when a decisive step was taken by the government of Bangladesh.
Calls for banning aceclofenac in India formally began back in 2014, as recent IVRI publications have corroborated earlier evidence that this drug metabolises almost immediately into toxic diclofenac once it is inside cattle and water buffalo and is therefore equally lethal to vultures.
These decisions are therefore long-awaited but very welcome, being among the crucial actions towards saving Asia’s vulture populations from further declines.
Saying this ban is probably the most significant step towards vulture conservation since the diclofenac ban of 2006, Abhishek Ghoshal from the Vulture Programme of BNHS said: “It’s a result of long-term efforts from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and including state governments, especially Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Assam and alongside with NGOs. Timely order notifications and on the ground implementation will now be pivotal.”
World acclaimed vulture expert Vibhu Prakash, who recently retired from the BNHS, said: “These bans are long awaited and can’t happen soon enough. Wild populations of four critically endangered vulture species have declined by up to 99.9 per cent and are not recovering in India due to this ongoing threat from cattle drugs which urgently need such action.”
Despite the great news surrounding the ban on aceclofenac and ketoprofen, some serious problems remain with another NSAID nimesulide not included in this decision.
The evidence that nimesulide is toxic to vultures is as strong as that for the other drugs, but despite this, veterinary use of nimesulide remains legal. Nimesulide use should also be banned, and even more importantly, there are no regulatory procedures in place to prevent new-to-market veterinary drugs being approved for veterinary use tomorrow.
This leaves vulture populations at risk of being wiped out within a few years and all progress made so far would be wasted.
Until this regulatory problem is fully resolved, the self-sustaining captive populations of the three critically endangered vulture species, which have been maintained in Vulture Conservation Breeding Centres by the BNHS for 20 years, remain of absolutely vital importance.
The crash in the population of vultures in India from an estimated four crore in the early 1980s to less than a lakh by 2007 is unprecedented in the animal world.
In 2004, the cause of their crash was established as diclofenac, a veterinary drug.
When the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are administered to cattle, and if the cow or buffalo dies within a few days and is consumed by vultures, it causes gout, kidney failure and death in the following days.
To save vultures from certain extinction, the government of India’s Action Plan for Vulture Conservation in India, 2020-2025, which was presented to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) secretariat in 2020, advocates the prevention of misuse of NSAIDs by ensuring their sale only on prescription.
The vulture conservation plan with an outlay of Rs 207.50 crore, part of the Gandhinagar Declaration adopted by CMS Parties in 2020, also strongly recommended that veterinary treatment should be given only by qualified veterinarians which would prevent overuse of NSAIDs in treating livestock as toxicity of most of the drugs is dose dependent.
Also, the scientific manner of disposal of livestock carcasses will ensure that the vultures do not get exposed to the carcasses of animals that died during treatment.
This should be done as soon as possible, says the five-year plan. (IANS)