Nature Studies: The drug that killed India’s birds of prey is coming to Europe – and we must stop it

There are 300 pairs of Spanish imperial eagle left. We can’t afford to lose any

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Not all Britons now planning their summer holidays in Spain will be heading for the beaches. Wilder regions deep inland, such as Extremadura, will draw a surprisingly large contingent of British birdwatchers, in search of some of western Europe’s most spectacular birding, featuring in particular big raptors such as vultures and eagles. The chance to see Egyptian, black and griffon vultures, and great rarities such as the Spanish imperial eagle, attracts many a British twitcher; a birding friend of mine would never miss his annual Extremadura trip, based in the small ancient city of Trujillo (he tells me the weather, medieval architecture, food and wine are all magnificent bonuses).

So here’s a piece of worrying news for anyone concerned with wildlife conservation: these very birds of prey now face a poisoning threat from a veterinary drug which has already wiped out millions of vultures in India.

In the 1990s, three closely related species, the white-backed, slender-billed and long-billed vultures, suddenly started mysteriously dying in India, in their millions – indeed, in their tens of millions. Their populations collapsed nearly completely, with up to 97 per cent of their numbers disappearing, which has presented a serious social as well as environmental problem for the subcontinent.

While Western eyes may see them as scruffy and sordid, vultures have long played an important role in keeping Indian villages and towns clean by consuming cattle carcasses (cows are sacred and are traditionally left in the open when they die in their thousands every year). The birds’ vanishing has led to a boom in India’s population of feral dogs, feasting on the unwanted carrion, with a fears of a sharp rise in rabies – more people die from rabies every year in India than anywhere else; and the disappearance has also been traumatic for India’s Parsee community, who leave their dead on so-called “towers of silence” so they can be eaten by vultures in a “sky burial”, which in many areas can no longer take place.

For more than a decade, the vulture deaths were a complete mystery, with an unknown virus being the principal suspect; but in 2004 a team of American researchers showed that they had been killed by the residues in the cattle carcases of diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat symptoms of disease and injury in domestic animals since the early 90s.

Since then, diclofenac has been banned for veterinary use in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, and the vultures’ slide to extinction has been halted (although recovery will take a very long time).

But to the amazement of conservationists, the drug has recently been licensed for veterinary use in Europe, first in Italy and now in Spain, the country which holds the vast majority of Europe’s vultures; and in a further twist, diclofenac has just been shown to be fatal to eagles of the genus Aquila, to which both the Spanish imperial eagle and the golden eagle belong.

“This suggests that the drug is fatal to a greater number of birds of prey in Asia, Europe and around the world,” said Dr Toby Galligan of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, one of the scientists involved in the latest research.

“All of Europe’s charismatic Aquila eagles are opportunistic scavengers and therefore could be at risk of diclofenac poisoning.  As we have seen in South Asia, wherever free-ranging livestock are treated with diclofenac, population declines in vultures and eagles can occur. The European Commission needs to recognise this problem and impose a continent-wide ban on veterinary diclofenac before it can impact on our birds.”

In Britain, the UK Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) has announced measures against the drug, banning both imports and exports of veterinary products containing it. “We are taking the issue of diclofenac’s risks to vulture populations seriously,” the VMD said.

The RSPB says diclofenac is now “a global problem” and has joined in a coalition with BirdLife International and the Vulture Conservation Foundation to get Brussels to bring in a Europe-wide ban.

Eagles add to the urgency. There are just over 300 pairs of the Spanish imperial eagle in existence, nearly all in Spain (with a few over the border in Portugal) making it one of the rarest eagles in the world. We can’t afford to lose any of them.

When we lost our own birds of prey, such as peregrine falcons, to pesticide poisoning in the 1950s, that was because we didn’t at first know the risks of the chemicals involved. With diclofenac, we know precisely.

Europe needs to act.

Twitter: @mjpmccarthy