Author(s): Rhys Green, IAN NEWTON, SUSANNE SHULTZ, ANDREW A CUNNINGHAM, MARTIN GILBERT
1. Rapid population declines of the vultures Gyps bengalensis, Gyps indicus and Gyps tenuirostris have recently been observed in India and Pakistan, continuing at least up to 2003. Surveys indicate annual rates of decline of 22–50% for G. bengalensis and G. indicus during 2000–03. Previous studies in Pakistan have shown that the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac causes renal failure and is lethal to G. bengalensis when it feeds on the carcass of a domestic animal that received a normal veterinary dose shortly before death. In Pakistan, diclofenac poisoning was found to be by far the most frequent cause of death.
2. A simulation model of vulture demography, described in this paper, demonstrated that the observed rates of population decline could be caused by contamination with a lethal level of diclofenac in a small proportion (between 1 : 130 and 1 : 760) of ungulate carcasses available to vultures.
3. Proportions of adult and subadult vultures found dead or dying in the wild that had signs of diclofenac poisoning were similar to the proportions of deaths expected from the model if the observed population decline was due entirely to diclofenac poisoning. The proportion of the excess mortality required to cause the observed population declines that could be attributable to diclofenac was estimated to be between 71% and 100%, depending on model assumptions. However, across all or most of the plausible range of assumed values for adult survival, the upper 95% confidence limit for the proportion of excess mortality due to diclofenac was 100%. Hence, available data are consistent with diclofenac poisoning being at least the major cause, and possibly the only cause, of rapid population declines of Gyps vultures across the Indian subcontinent.
4. Synthesis and applications. We recommend that urgent action is taken in the range states of the three currently threatened vulture species to prevent the exposure of vultures to livestock carcasses contaminated with diclofenac. Research is also needed to identify alternative drugs that are effective in livestock and safe for vultures. Efforts should also be made to raise awareness, among veterinarians, pharmacists, livestock owners and the general public, of the problem of diclofenac contamination and the availability of safe alternatives. Captive holding and breeding of vultures until diclofenac is controlled is recommended as a precaution to ensure the long-term survival of the threatened species and to provide a stock of birds for future reintroduction programmes.