(India) cattle drug implicated in vulture deaths

Mary Finelli hello_itz_me at hotmail.com
Thu Jun 19 16:35:50 EDT 2003

Vet drug blamed for vulture death
Cow painkiller may be toxic to scavenging birds.
Nature, Hannah Hoag, June 19, 2003

White-backed vulture numbers have fallen by 95% in India.
© GettyImages

A massive vulture die-off in India may be caused by a veterinary drug 
present in cattle flesh, hints a new study.

For over 200 years, the vultures disposed of the dead at the Towers of 
Silence, a Parsi burial site that sits atop Malabar Hill in Mumbai, India. 
But in the last decade, the population has plummeted by more than 95 
percent, boosting the population of rabies-riddled feral dogs.

Now bird virologist J. Lindsay Oaks of Washington State University in 
Pullman is proposing that an anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac may be 
poisoning the vultures. Vets in India use the painkiller in cattle. By 
eating cattle carcasses, birds might be building up toxic levels of the 

In a survey of shrinking vulture colonies in Pakistan, Oaks and his 
colleagues from The Peregrine Fund found that vultures had died of kidney 
failure, which could be caused by diclofenac poisoning, and that their 
tissues contained the drug. Birds that had died of other causes did not test 
positive for diclofenac, Oaks told the 6th World Conference on Birds of Prey 
and Owls last month in Budapest, Hungary.

But wildlife epidemiologist Andrew Cunningham of the Zoological Society of 
London's Institute of Zoology is not convinced that the mystery has been 
solved. He and his colleagues have built a vulture care centre in Haryana 
state in India, where they are also searching for the cause of the birds' 

Cunningham argues that birds on the Indian subcontinent may be suffering 
from something different to those in Pakistan. "The signs point to it being 
an infectious agent".

Indian vultures are sick for three to five weeks before they die, and have 
inflammation in their nervous system, a mark of infection. In Pakistan, 
birds die quickly and their organs are covered with a chalky white paste of 
uric acid, characteristic of renal gout.

"There may be a combination of things going on," says Debbie Pain, head of 
international research at the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds 
in Bedfordshire. She too says that an infectious agent cannot yet be ruled 

Cunningham's team is surveying veterinarians, farmers and villagers to 
understand how diclofenac is used, and analysing cattle tissues for 
concentrations of the drug. "We are trying to prove or disprove the 
involvement of this drug on a scientific basis," he says.

© Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2003

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