Great vulture deaths due to painkiller Diclofenac

Great vulture deaths due to painkiller Diclofenac

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Vulture kills by Diclofenac
A vulture's stomach seems indestructible. The scavengers can easily cope with poisons that arise when carcasses decompose and that have serious health consequences for humans. Conversely, for vultures, some poison is what people use as medicine. This includes the pain reliever diclofenac.

All kinds of threats

The causes that threaten animal species are manifold: habitat destruction, uncontrolled hunting, persecution as food competitors, introduction of predators on islands, the inhabitants of which developed no protective mechanisms against them, loss of food sources, competition from farm animals, catch for private owners, global warming or Environmental toxins.

Frequency does not protect against extinction

Today, an animal species that was still widespread a few years ago can be threatened with extinction “overnight”. Frequency does not protect against extinction, as the example of the walking pigeon shows.

Their number probably exceeded that of all other American bird species, individual flocks darkened the sky, and the branches of large trees collapsed under the weight of the birds. Hunting, the destruction of breeding colonies, and the clearing of large forests in the eastern United States made the pigeon disappear forever. And other species, such as subspecies, which once appeared in large numbers, shared their fate. These include the quagga, a form of the steppe zebra, or the Carolina parakeet.

From 40 million to a few thousand

Dozens of millions of vultures still lived in India in 1990. India, Bengal and Vulture vultures live on the subcontinent, as well as the Little Egyptian Vulture, the Bearded Vulture living in rocky regions and the Snow Vulture of the Himalayas. Three of the species, the Indian, Bengal and thin-billed vultures are now critically endangered - critically endangered. According to international standards, this is the last category before: extinct.

The Bengal vulture, once the most common bird of prey in the world, is one of the rarest today. Since 1990 the population of the three vultures has decreased by 99.9%. Of the approximately 40 million, a few thousand remained. Or: Only every thousandth Bengal vulture survived.

Mass deaths from drugs

In the 1990s, dramatic vulture deaths began in India, with vultures being the least affected in national parks and tiger reserves. The researchers first poked in the fog. Was it the effect of pesticides? About unknown infectious diseases?

The carcasses made no conclusions. Rather, the dead birds showed visceral gout and heavy uric acid deposits in the internal organs. This, combined with acute kidney failure, led to the death of the birds.

The veterinarian Dr. Wolfgang Baumgart discusses the explanation of dying: Finally, the diclofenac used as a veterinary drug could be determined as the cause of death. It acts like a strong poison for the kidneys of the vulture: birds do not excrete the breakdown products of protein metabolism like water-soluble urea, but like uric acid, rather than mammals.

The deadly dose of diclofenac for vultures is already 0.1-0.2 mg / kg body weight. Ingestion of 1.5 mg is lethal for vultures in two days.

About 5% of the animal carcasses that ate the vultures were contaminated with diclofenac. According to Baumgart, 1% would have been enough to cause death.


Dichlorophenylaminophenylaceticacid, short Diclofenac is a remedy for pain and inflammation. It is used as a medicine against rheumatism, bruises, strains and arthroses. The active ingredient inhibits the cyclooxygenases and blocks inflammation.

It has been on the market since 1974 and is one of the most widely sold pain relievers. It can be purchased as tablets, capsules, dragees, droplets, suppositories or a solution for injection, but also as a plaster, gel or ointment.

In Germany, the active ingredient is sometimes also available on prescription only. The maximum dose per day is 50 mg, divided into two to four tablets.

Side effects in humans

Side effects in humans include gastrointestinal complaints, disorders in blood formation and hypersensitivity to external stimuli, dizziness and fatigue, and increased liver values. The kidneys can also be damaged - but this happens very rarely in humans. Long-term overdose increases the risk of having a heart attack.

The most common side effect of diclofenac in humans is gastric bleeding. More serious disorders such as gastrointestinal breakthrough are possible. Anyone who is susceptible to such complaints will receive Diclofenac together with a stomach protection preparation.

Why diclofenac?

Until the late 1980s, vets in India had no access to diclofenac. Then, according to Baumgart, production rose to 800 tons a year, and the meloxicam effective for the same symptoms was at least ten times as expensive. Around 1990, cattle farmers used diclofenac in around 70% of pain treatments.

The injection of the pain reliever, according to Baumgart, cannot explain the death of 40 million vultures alone. Because injected diclofenac is quickly excreted and 30% metabolized in the liver. The vulture lethal amounts should only be expected from injections if the animals had received the syringe approximately 24 to 72 hours before death.

Powder in drinking water

Baumgart researched that diclofenac was also administered in powder form until 2006, to relieve the pain of working animals, especially for cattle that were used as draft and pack animals - at an inflationary rate.

If animals were paralyzed or otherwise struggled to move, farmers would routinely administer diclofenac dissolved in water, which is not permitted in most countries.

As a result, large amounts of the preparation probably accumulated in the rumen of the cattle, since diclofenac is very stable in the digestive tract, said Baumgart. The level of the active ingredient also remained in the body for a long time.

Why Bengal vultures?

Another indication that oral diclofenac as a pain reliever triggered vulture extinction, according to Baumgart, is the fact that the vultures first died out in areas with intensive agriculture.

This pain therapy also explains why Egyptian Vultures and Bearded Vultures got off comparatively lightly: The little Egyptian Vultures cannot open their abdominal cavity with their beaks and feed on what the large vultures leave. The Bearded Vulture drops bones from a great height and eats the inside of the marrow bones.

However, the three now almost extinct and formerly common vultures open the abdominal wall and eat the intestines. With that, they ingested most of the poison.

In areas with pasture management, the vulture population did not decrease to the same extent: In India, pasture cattle are treated with painkillers only little or not, in contrast to the working animals and the sacred cows.

Holy cows

The sacred cows of the Hindus are a key to the extent of the vulture death. The ethnologist Marvin Harris explained the sanctity of the cattle from the material meaning of the living animals.

First, the cows give birth to bulls that later worked as draft animals and formed the basis of traditional agriculture in India. According to Harris, an absolute killing taboo for cattle was a rule in order not to starve in the long term through a short-term supply of meat.

Raw materials from cattle

In addition, the living cattle in rural India offer existential materials for daily needs: The dried cow pies serve as fuel such as fertilizer and even pounded as floor covering for the huts and as a building material. Urine is a disinfectant, milk is a staple.

The cows are considered part of the family: they are petted and fed, watered and cared for when they get sick.

They are undemanding in terms of nutrition. Apparently abandoned cattle roam the Indian cities during the day and eat organic waste. Together with dogs, pigs, black kites and vultures, they also serve as garbage disposal.

The cows daily diclofenac

The cheap diclofenac was the daily remedy for the aging signs of the cared for cattle. For example, old cows often suffer from osteoarthritis and sick animals that died have high levels of diclofenac in their bodies.

Baumgart also suspects the secret disposal of sick animals. Hindus are prohibited from killing cows; In order to get rid of old and useless cattle, they sometimes stage “accidents,” says Baumgart, or poison the animals. Such "injured" cattle could, according to Baumgart, have high levels of diclofenac in the body.

A social catastrophe

Baumgart writes: “The consequences of the vulture's extinction, in their globality and their economic impact, went beyond the scope of previous species protection problems. These ranged far into the environmental, social, economic, cultural and religious areas. "

Ecological amateurs mostly consider the decline of animal species to be an isolated phenomenon, and vultures do not enjoy a cuteness bonus like panda bears in Europe. The big vultures as waste disposal companies are not only key species in the ecosystem, but also for public health in non-industrial societies.

In India, vultures removed the carcasses of 300 million cattle before they died. A whole trade, the maskers, just pulled off the skin of buffalos and cows in the middle of the big cities, left the dead animal lying there and picked up the immaculately cleaned bones shortly afterwards.


In India, there was no alternative to disposing of the animal carcasses, and environmental damage such as epidemics increased extremely. Air and water were contaminated with harmful bacteria, including anthrax, and the air stank of decaying corpses.

Dogs took over the vulture gap, and stray dogs increased from 8 million in 1987 to 29 million in 2003. Rat populations also exploded. The number of dog bites increased with the dogs: despite successful vaccination against rabies by 80% until 2004, at least 1,737 Indians died of the disease from 1992 to 2002.

Loss of income

Poor Indians lost, according to Baumgart, a traditional source of income: in contrast to dogs, vultures leave only the bare bones, and their use to make bone meal and gelatin gave many Indians bread.

In dogs, pigs and other less efficient scavengers, on the other hand, tissue remains remain that are difficult to remove - and the risk of becoming infected with pathogens is enormous.

Today, animal carcasses usually have to be transported, burned or buried, which causes additional effort and costs.

End of a culture

Members of the oldest monotheistic religion live in India. Called Parsen or fire worshipers in India, they belong to the Zorasters, the religion of pre-Islamic Iran.

The Zoroastres created the mental structure of the conflict between the good god (Ahuramazda) and his dark opponent (Ahriman), winged beings with human bodies who mediated between God and man, the figure of the Messiah and ultimately heaven and hell.

Essential ideas of this Zoroastrianism flowed into Judaism and from there into Christianity and Islam.

It is inconceivable for the Parsis to bury their dead in the earth. A central element of their religion are the "towers of silence", where the corpses are exposed to nature at dizzy heights and thus return to life. This celestial burial can only be done by the big vultures.

In India, in contrast to Europe, vultures are generally valued, and it is not for nothing that Rudyard Kipling placed them prominently in the jungle book.

Tiger Reserves: A key to protecting vultures

The Indians love the tiger, and the Hindus do not use its body parts as medicine. Although the combination of Indian corruption and traditional medicine in China also led to a drop in tiger populations in India, since the "Save the Tiger" campaign started in 1973, 48 tiger reserves have been established on more than 2% of the country's surface by 2015. Today there are 2,226 tigers in India, a multiple of the remaining populations in Indonesia or Southeast Asia.

These tiger reserves are of the utmost importance for the endangered vultures. The tigers provide sufficient carcasses, and the prey consists of wild animals such as deer and wild boar, so it is not contaminated with diclofenac.

The habitats are preserved in their original diversity - so the vultures not only have poison-free food, but also nesting sites and a suitable terrain with gorges, rocks, trees, etc., in which they can circle for potential food and raise their young.

Tiger protection is vulture protection

The vultures are protected from human interference by almost military protection of the reserves.

In these tiger reserves (and other national parks), feeding places for vultures could also be set up - with dead farm animals that are guaranteed to have no residues of diclofenac.

Baumgart writes that the vultures could spread from these protected areas again. Indeed, the numbers of Indian, Bengal and Bald Vultures rose in various tiger reserves.

Vultures in the open air museum?

Today's national parks in India are not only a retreat for endangered animal species such as tigers, Ganges-Gavial or rhinoceros, but unfortunately also a kind of "open-air museum". The Kaziranga National Park in Assam, for example, not only offers a home for 80% of the last tank rhinos, but is also one of the few places in the world that contains the alluvial surfaces of the Brahmaputra; The Ranthambore National Park with its palace ruins and the dry forest (jungle) not only conveys the atmosphere of a jungle book, but also shows how large parts of Rajasthan looked a hundred years ago.

The "green revolution" saved millions of Indians from hunger with the massive use of pesticides, but at the same time transformed Bengal from a wilderness of swamp and forest into an empty wasteland: the rose duck died out completely, tiger and swamp crocodile, wild water buffalo and Maral deer only stayed in national parks.

For one, it is probably thanks to the Indian religions Hinduism and Buddhism that there are still large wild animals in the country with the second largest population in the world. In Europe it would be hard to imagine that the largest population of tigers in the world lives a hundred kilometers from a large city with 16 million inhabitants, as in the Sundarbans just outside Kolkata.

On the other hand, before Diclofenac, the vultures were among the wild animals that even benefited from the population growth. One in three of a billion cows live in India, and their corpses provided an inexhaustible source of food for the vultures.

Today's national parks are not only a particularly protected part of the landscape, they are also in sharp contrast to the surrounding country. As if cut with a ruler, another world begins behind the entrance to the Ranthambore National Park - dry forest instead of a dry plain.

While until recently the vultures were native to both worlds, they are now part of the national park's fauna, which is protected with immense means.

What did the diclofenac ban do?

After Diclofenac was identified as the cause, it was banned in India. But the reality was different. Large sections of the population either did not notice the ban or did not abide by it. The illegal market for the drug flourished.

The controls showed success, but they were poor. From 2008 the diclofenac residues in cattle carcasses only decreased by 4.3%. This showed that the farmers continued to use the product. The meloxicam replacement was extremely expensive by comparison, and research showed that 36% of sellers still traded with diclofenac. In Nepal, on the other hand, the ban turned out to be the norm: in 2011 only 0.6% of the dealers had Diclofenac on offer.

However, hardly anyone in India sold powdered diclofenac - and that, according to Baumgart, was the crux of the problem. In Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, however, diclofenac was not prohibited. The vultures are almost completely extinct there.

As a result of the ban, Bengal, Indian, Egyptian and Bald Vultures increased again at an extremely low level: Bengal vultures reached 0.15% of their former population, Indian vultures 2.29%.

The ban was accompanied by the following measures: feeding places with pollution-free food and protection zones, protection of breeding and resting places; Expansion of breeding centers.

Is it just the diclofenac?

Baumgart does not see diclofenac alone as the cause of mass extinction. In India, specific factors played a role in the vulture population collapsing so dramatically:

First the Indian government had the drug sold unchecked, also for oral use.

Secondly it was easy and cheap to buy on a freely accessible pharmaceutical market.

Third small farmers administered it excessively to farm animals with the drinking water.

Fourth Baumgart mentions the uncontrolled disposal of millions of cattle carcasses by vultures.

According to Baumgart, the dimension and dynamics of the ecological catastrophe triggered by Diclofenac can only be understood against the background of India: the disposal of animal carcasses by vultures millions of times would not be possible in the EU, for example.

Can the vulture populations recover?

Vultures were once widespread in Europe. Today there are only a few geese and black vultures left, especially in the mountains of Spain and France, in the Balkans and the Mediterranean countries.

The reason for their decline in Europe was, firstly, massive persecution by humans, but secondly, industrial agriculture and advanced epidemic hygiene: there were simply not enough carcasses in the landscape to feed the birds.

They either lived in areas with rich game populations where carcasses were not disposed of and / or in regions with extensive livestock farming. This is especially true for the free pasture of goats and sheep.

According to Baumgart, eating the cattle carcasses by the vultures would not have been a perspective for the future, even without diclofenac. It is now urgent to find solutions to deal with the problem, for example by setting up masking shops in the Indian cities.

Carcass removal inevitable

Even if the vulture populations recover, they will never be able to reach their old populations again with the necessary measures to remove carcasses. In the long run, populations in the amount of 10% to 15% of the original amount would be realistic.

However, since vultures are not dependent on cattle carcasses, the populations can level off at a higher level, with the distribution initially limited to the foothills of the Himalayas, West Indies and tiger reserves. The Indians support the protective measures because they have a positive attitude towards the vultures.

In the future, the most common vultures could be the Indian vulture and the thin-billed vulture, while the Bengal vulture will presumably be confined to restricted areas. Egyptian vultures will continue to be widespread in rural areas.

Vulture deaths in Asia and Africa

Although Baumgart discusses in detail why conditions in India triggered a particular dynamic in vulture deaths, the problem is not limited to the subcontinent. The total number of vultures in Africa and Asia fell to 5% - 6 out of 23 vulture species are now considered to be globally threatened.

The African white-backed, caped and vulture vultures are now on the list of critical species. Even in reserves such as Masai-Mara in Kenya, the vulture population decreased by 60% in 30 years.

In Africa, however, the reasons are primarily poisoned livestock baits that farmers lay out to decimate predators. But diclofenac also threatens the animals.

In Cambodia, conservationists are now setting up “vulture restaurants” where the animals can eat carcasses that are free of harmful substances.

Vulture populations could also collapse in Europe. Despite the Indian disaster, Diclofenac was allowed in Italy and Spain to treat grazing animals. If these treated animals get into the wild, a vulture death is inevitable. Today 80% of all European vultures live in Spain and Italy, in addition to geese and Egyptian vultures also the extremely rare black vultures.

Not only vultures are affected

Diclofenac not only kills vultures but also eagles. The researcher Toby Galligan found residues of the active ingredient in the carcasses of two steppe eagles in India. In addition, the birds showed the same kidney deformations as the dead vultures.

In Spain, the product therefore also poses a threat to the most endangered Spanish imperial eagle. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Wolfgang Baumgart: The dying of vultures in India caused by Diclofenac. A veterinary medicinal product shakes a subcontinental culture. In: Deutsches Tierärzteblatt 65/2017

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Video: Vulture Deaths due to Diclofenac, Environmental Scavenging, Vulture Safe Zones for UPSCPSC Exams (June 2022).