Bureaucratic ignorance has allowed a drug that almost wiped out India’s vultures to be sanctioned for use in Europe – raising fears that authorities will have to spend vast sums collecting and incinerating animal carcasses which the birds usually dispose of.
Despite their unappealing looks, vultures make a vital contribution to public health in southern Europe.
But Spain, which is home to about 100,000 vultures, has horrified conservationists and bird lovers by approving the use of diclophenac – a powerful anti-inflammatory drug used that is beneficial to mammals but will kill any vulture that feeds on a carcass containing traces of the drug.
Diclophenac can also be used legally in Italy, where it was first developed. The country also has a small population of wild vultures.
About 95 per cent of India’s vultures disappeared after diclophenac was introduced in the mid-1990s, before eventually being banned in 2006. The result was a dangerous increase in rotting animal carcasses, which caused a rapid rise in the number of feral dogs, and the spread of rabies. One study put the resulting cost to Indian society at £20bn.
Spain, where vets can now legally use diclophenac, has about 90 per cent of all Europe’s vultures, including 97 per cent of one species, the Black Vulture.
A campaign has now begun to get the European Union to change its guidelines so the drug can be banned. A senior Conservative MP, the former Tory deputy Chief Whip, Sir John Randall, has promised to lobby the British Government to call for a Europe-wide ban. Sir John, who was a professional bird watcher before becoming an MP, said the introduction of diclophenac is “potentially devastating”.
Sir John added: “There is a real problem of ignorance. There is a false assumption that what is good for mammals is good for everything else, or at least not harmful. People assume that vultures belong in the Serengeti with the lions, but they are common in Spain and France; a wild vulture has even been seen in Holland. There was a Black Vulture spotted in Wales, but they think it escaped from somewhere. Vultures have always been disregarded because of the way they look, but actually they do a very, very good job.”
José Tavares, director of the Swiss-based Vulture Conservation Foundation, added: “Vultures fulfil an incredibly important role. They clean the countryside, they provide an ecological service that is free and unique. In a few depressed areas of Europe, they bring tourist income. If diclophenac becomes widespread in Europe, carcasses would have to be collected and incinerated at huge cost.
“There is some evidence that the drug may be toxic to other species. We are trying to get that evidence published. In the UK, there are no vultures, but if the drug is toxic to other birds of prey then the problem starts to be extremely relevant to the UK,” he added.
The Vulture Conservation Foundation has been lobbying the European Commission and is planning to post a video on YouTube. An online petition addressed to Janez Potočnik, the EU Commissioner for the Environment, has attracted 21,000 signatures.