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


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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
William Hague, addresses delegates at the Conservative party conference for the last time in his political career in Birmingham  

It’s only natural for politicians like William Hague to end up as journalists

Simon Kelner
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent