January 31, 2006

Medication for Endangered Vultures Offers Hope

LONDON -- Scientists have offered a ray of hope to Asian vultures being wiped out in India after eating the corpses of cattle treated with a common anti-inflammatory drug.

And they called on the Indian government, which has already banned the use of the drug diclofenac, to intensify a captive breeding program for threatened Oriental white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed vultures.

Writing on Tuesday in the journal PLoS Biology, the scientists from Britain, India, South Africa and Namibia said diclofenac -- which is fatal to the birds -- could readily be replaced by meloxicam which is not.

"We conclude that meloxicam is of low toxicity to (the) vultures and that its use in place of diclofenac would reduce vulture mortality in the Indian subcontinent," they wrote.

The scientists noted that the populations in South Asia of the three threatened vultures had plummeted by more than 97 percent over the past 15 years due to the widespread use of diclofenac to treat sick cattle.

Birds eating the carcass of an animal that had died shortly after treatment with the drug suffered kidney damage, increased serum uric acid concentrations, visceral gout and death.

But trials in South Africa and Namibia had shown that vultures suffered no ill effects when fed even high doses of meloxicam which was as effective in cattle as diclofenac.

"We recommend that governments consider advocating the use of meloxicam as an alternative to diclofenac," the scientists wrote.

"Because vulture populations are now very low and contamination of even a small proportion of livestock carcasses is sufficient to cause adverse impacts on vulture populations, we also advocate immediate intensification of efforts to establish viable captive breeding populations," they added.

Debbie Pain, head of international research at Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and co-author of the paper, welcomed the rapid results after diclofenac was found to be the culprit just two years ago.

"This research is an excellent example of international collaboration in response to an urgent conservation problem," she said.