Author(s): Deborah J Pain, Christopher G R Bowden, Andrew A Cunningham
Gyps vulture populations across the Indian subcontinent collapsed in the 1990s and continue to decline. Repeated population surveys showed that the rate of decline was so rapid that elevated mortality of adult birds must be a key demographic mechanism. Post mortem examination showed that the majority of dead vultures had visceral gout, due to kidney damage. The realisation that diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug potentially nephrotoxic to birds, had become a widely used veterinary medicine led to the identification of diclofenac poisoning as the cause of the decline. Surveys of diclofenac contamination of domestic ungulate carcasses, combined with vulture population modelling, show that the level of contamination is sufficient for it to be the sole cause of the decline. Testing on vultures of meloxicam, an alternative NSAID for livestock treatment, showed that it did not harm them at concentrations likely to be encountered by wild birds and would be a safe replacement for diclofenac. The manufacture of diclofenac for veterinary use has been banned, but its sale has not. Consequently, it may be some years before diclofenac is removed from the vultures' food supply. In the meantime, captive populations of three vulture species have been established to provide sources of birds for future reintroduction programmes.