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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 January 2006, 10:35 GMT
Study sounds global vulture alert
By Roland Pease
BBC science correspondent

Vulture flock   Asad Rahmani
Once very common, vultures are now rare in India (Image: Asad Rahmani)
A widely used livestock pain killer could endanger the survival of vultures around the world, researchers suggest.

The rapid decline of Indian vulture populations has been blamed on the use of the drug diclofenac to treat inflammation in cattle.

A new study for the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says diclofenac is highly toxic to other vulture species.

It warns they could be poisoned when feeding off contaminated carcasses.

Rapid decline

Oriental white-backed vultures (Gyps bengalensis) were once the most common large bird of prey anywhere in the world.

Oriental white-backed vulture, rspb-images.com
Oriental white-backed vultures are critically endangered (Photo: rspb-images.com)
Flocks of them could be seen across India; but over a matter of years, they have become almost extinct.

The long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus) and the slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) have also seen dramatic declines.

In early 2004, the painkiller diclofenac was identified as the cause by a US-led team.

Extremely cheap to buy, it has been widely used in South Asia to treat cattle for conditions like lameness, or mastitis - inflammation of the udder.

The trouble was that vultures were feeding off carcasses of dead, treated animals, and the drug was destroying their kidneys.

Alternatives sought

The new study, led by Dr Deborah Pain and published in Biology Letters, shows the drug is just as deadly to other closely related vulture species which are not so widespread.

The research centred on the Eurasian griffon (Gyps fulvus) and the African white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus).

The Eurasian vulture may be particularly at risk, as juveniles migrate into northern India, where dead cattle are left unburied.

But the study will alert conservationists across the world to the peculiar risk posed by diclofenac.

The researchers fear that more distantly related birds may be equally endangered, and that substitutes for diclofenac might be similarly toxic. They are currently seeking safe alternatives.

The loss of these scavenging birds - the world's natural rubbish collectors - could damage the quality of the environment.


SEE ALSO:
India in effort to save vultures
22 Mar 05 |  South Asia
Vet drug 'killing Asian vultures'
28 Jan 04 |  Science/Nature
Vultures 'may spread disease'
16 May 03 |  Science/Nature
New Indian campaign to save vultures
20 Dec 02 |  South Asia
Asia's vultures face growing threat
30 Nov 01 |  Science/Nature
UK bid to save Asian vultures
01 Apr 01 |  Science/Nature


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