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Green Minute News: 

Tamil Nadu becomes the first state in India to enforce Diclofenac legislation for Vulture Protection. This measure will go a long way in enhancing Vulture Population in the state albeit with legal action. In this regard, more than 100 cases have been filed in the courts against manufacturers, suppliers, retailers and distributors of Diclofenac, a painkiller. 

Diclofenac was used widely by veterinarians as a painkiller and was the main cause of the dramatic 99 percent vulture declines across Asia. Although it is clear that human formulations have been illegally used on a large scale, this is an important step to discourage such an irresponsible practice.

According to RSPB (Royal Society for Protection of Birds), SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction) programme, there is an urgent need for other Indian states to enforce such a legislation and take other necessary measures to save vultures from extinction.

The office of the Director of Drugs Control, Tamil Nadu has registered over 100 cases against suppliers, distributors, manufacturers, and retailers of diclofenac. Since the 2006 ban on Veterinary Diclofenac and the vial size restriction to 3ml needed for human use, this is the first time that those contravening the ban are being prosecuted.

“Tamil Nadu’s decision to enforce the vial-size ban on diclofenac for use in cattle is one of the rare instances in which policies formulated to protect vultures is being implemented by local governments,” said S. Bharathidasan, of Arulagam, a SAVE Partner NGO that has been working towards vulture conservation in Tamil Nadu. 

He added, “The government has also actively moved to curtail the usage of other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ketoprofen and flunixin in the districts of Nilgiris, Erode and Coimbatore which are the few vulture strongholds in the State.”

According to Chris Bowden, RSPB’s Globally Threatened Species Officer and Programme Manager for SAVE, Tamil Nadu is once again demonstrating its commitment to vulture conservation by preventing the sale of large vials of diclofenac, making it harder for veterinarians and cattle-owners to use the drug.

“There are safe alternative drugs available in the market and so, there is no justification in allowing this illegal practice of continued diclofenac use. Meloxicam and tolfenamic acid are cheap and safe options and out of patent, so drug manufacturers and suppliers should be focusing on producing them which will help in recovery of vulture populations,” adds Chris Bowden who is also the co-chair of the IUCN vulture specialist group.

If diclofenac can be fully removed from veterinary practice across India, he says and adds, “We can start releasing vultures from the breeding programmes and look for population recovery. There is one final step required though: to regulate the use of three other dangerous drugs – Aceclofenac, Nimesulide and Ketoprofen – all proven vulture killers. But with safe options available, this step seems a small price to pay for saving India’s nine vulture species from extinction.”

It was in 2015 that Central Government banned large diclofenac vials following evidence presented by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) team. This ban has largely been adhered to across India which has undoubtedly helped reduce the threat that diclofenac poses to the few remaining vultures. In 2016, the ban was challenged by two pharmaceutical companies in Madras High Court. However, in 2017, the court upheld the ban on sale of Diclofenac and this was partly due to efforts of Arulagam, BNHS and SAVE.

BNHS Director Bivash Pandav said, “This commendable step by Tamil Nadu needs to be followed by all states across India, and together with national bans of other toxic veterinary drugs like nimesulide and Aceclofenac so that vultures will have a real future as our environmental cleaners.”

It may be recalled repeated surveys by BNHS revealed a declining population in almost all the species found in India. The population of 3 out of 9 Indian species of vultures – White-rumped, Long-billed and Slender-billed crashed by 90 per cent in the mid-1990s. Later surveys in 2007 indicated that numbers of Oriental white-backed vultures had declined by a staggering 99.9 percent over the preceding 15 years. 

Long-billed and Slender- billed vultures too had decreased by 97 percent over the same period. The birds were listed as Critically Endangered Species in the IUCN list and so, India launched an action plan to save vultures where they advocated preventing the misuse of NSAID drugs and they are sold only on prescription.