A veterinary drug administered to cattle caused a decline of almost 99% in vulture populations in India that fed on the contaminated carcasses. It is now being sold in Europe, potentially putting Alpine vultures at risk.
Even by Swiss standards, the village of La Punt Chamues-ch near St Moritz was the scene of an extraordinary example of direct democracy on August 18. The majority of the village’s residents voted against the construction of a hydroelectric project nearby.
What was extraordinary was that their decision was based on the fact that the project could disturb the breeding of a pair of bearded vultures. The vultures won the day by 74 votes to 64.
Still widely known as Lämmergeier or lamb vulture, the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) was first re-introduced in the Swiss Alps in 1991. However, it was only in 2007 that the first pair managed to breed in the wild.
There are eight breeding pairs in Switzerland, each with a successfully fledged vulture chick, according to the Swiss Ornithological Institute. The comeback of the species is one of the great success stories of Swiss conservation.
However, despite the good news a threat looms on the horizon. Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug responsible for the catastrophic decline of vulture species on the Indian subcontinent has now been approved to be used to treat domestic animals in Italy and Spain, where 80% of European vultures live. Vultures that feed on the carcasses of diclofenac-treated livestock die due to renal failure.
Three species of vultures found in India showed a catastrophic decline of 97-99.9% between 1992 and 2007 and diclofenac was proven to be the culprit. In 2006 the drug was banned in the country for veterinary use.
The presence of the drug in Europe has alarmed conservation groups who fear the drug could pose a real danger to the Alpine bearded vulture population and potentially undo decades of conservation efforts.
Slipping under the radar
Diclofenac is a common painkiller that is sold globally under more than 100 different trade names, and is used in both human and veterinary medicine. Veterinary diclofenac is used to treat inflammation, fever and or pain associated with disease or injury of domestic livestock. It is a generic drug that is very cheap to produce as the patent is no longer protected and any pharmaceutical company can produce it.
It was introduced in India in 1995 and became a very popular and relatively affordable all-purpose painkiller for livestock. Before the 2006 ban, 10% of the almost 2000 cattle carcasses surveyed across India contained traces of diclofenac. Its popularity continues even after the ban and pharmacies meet this demand by selling diclofenac intended for human use.
Fatro, the company producing and selling the drug in Spain and Italy, is well within the law.
“Currently the EU guidelines for this type of veterinary drug omit the need for any ecotoxicity test. So there is no real legal requirement to consider the toxic impact of these drugs on biodiversity,” José Tavares, director of the Swiss-based Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF), told swissinfo.ch.
However, conservation groups claim that the company was aware of the impact of diclofenac on vultures and used the loophole in the regulations to obtain the permit in Spain and Italy. “[Fatro] knew because they had actually been involved in the Indian vulture crisis in the early 2000s when a number of pharma companies were contacted,” Tavares alleged.
This view is shared by Chris Bowden, co-chair of the Vulture Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “I think Fatro have completely gone into this knowing the risk and ignoring it. It is unethical and a disgrace to the pharmaceutical industry,” he said.
When contacted, Fatro, which also produces several other animal health products, declined to comment on the allegations levelled by the conservation groups.
“We would like to say that before the European regulatory authorities authorise a veterinary product, they should evaluate, amongst other things, safety for animals, man and the environment,” Silvana Dal Magro, Fatro’s CEO, told swissinfo.ch.
“Obviously, it should authorise only those products which guarantee these fundamental requirements. Therefore we consider it both unnecessary and inappropriate to comment on the issue from our part.”
Swiss vultures safe, for now
The bearded vulture population in Switzerland is unlikely to be affected in the immediate to short-term due to a combination of factors.
Firstly, veterinary diclofenac is not sold in the country. Swiss conservation organisations are aware of what is happening in Spain and Italy and have warned the Swiss government against allowing the sale of the drug in the country.
“The experts at our office are aware of the effect of diclofenac on vultures,” Eva van Beek, spokesperson for the Federal Veterinary Office told swissinfo.ch.
“The Federal Office for the Environment is very conscious of the problem. We are in contact with Swissmedic, which is the inspection authority for the marketing authorisation for medication in Switzerland, as well as with VCF and the Swiss Ornithological Institute,” confirmed a Federal Office for the Environment spokeswoman.
It is unlikely that a pharmaceutical company could get permission for manufacturing and selling diclofenac under the radar.
Also reducing the risk for Swiss bearded vultures is the fact that there is enough wild food for the birds in the Alpine region.
“The Alpine bearded vulture is the rare case of a vulture in Europe which does not depend on domestic carcasses. They mostly feed on wild ungulates like chamois, ibex and deer that die,” said Tavares.
However, this does not mean that the Swiss vulture population is completely immune from the use of veterinary diclofenac in Spain and Italy.
According to Tavares, the Alpine bearded vulture population in Northern Italy is a concern as there is some overlap of territories between the Northern Italian and Swiss populations.
“We are trying to gather information on how diclofenac is being prescribed and used in the Italian countryside. We are trying to find out if it is being used in Northern Italy where the Alpine bearded vulture population also reaches,” he said.
Regulators need to look at whether there is a long-term risk to the population’s health and viability, he argued.
“The Alpine population cannot be seen in isolation. It cannot survive without gene flow from other populations such as those in the Pyrenees, other parts of south-eastern Europe and even Central Asia,” said Tavares.
Future diclofenac ban?
Conservation groups are lobbying for a referral on veterinary diclofenac from the European Union. A referral would result in a re-assessment of the permit given to produce and sell the drug in Europe provided there is enough evidence that the allocation of the permit is causing significant negative impacts.
The European Union referred the matter to a scientific and technical agency called the European Medicines Agency in July 2013. It has to reach a decision by December 2014.
Unlike the Indian vulture crisis, the problem has been spotted quite early, when the European vulture population is still unaffected.
But conservation groups still want to go beyond Fatro and diclofenac and address the issue of drug risk assessment in Europe.
“We want diclofenac to be banned but above all we want the guidelines for assessing the risk of anti-inflammatory drugs to be changed in Europe to prevent other drugs like diclofenac to come out and be legalised in the future,” says Tavares.