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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: the paraphernalia of a practised burglar – screwdrivers, gloves, children

Guy Keleny
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits  

So who, really, is David Cameron, our re-elected ‘one nation’ Prime Minister?

Andrew Grice
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?