Despite proof that diclofenac kills vultures and other carrion feeders, the EU approved and continues to allow the use of this harmful veterinary drug. Despite the proven toxicity of this drug, the chemical company responsible, in full knowledge of its harmful impact on wildlife, continues to peddle and promote its use in Europe. Even more remarkable is Spain, under the guise of the Spanish Agency for Medicines, approved this harmful drug for use by veterinarians on pigs and cattle within Spain. Serious questions really need to be asked how this has happened?
In December 2014 the European Medicines Agency (EMA) had published their long awaited technical position on the vulture-killing drug diclofenac, following a request from the European Commission, they confirmed that veterinary diclofenac does represent a real risk to European vultures, and therefore recommended that a number of risk management measures should be taken to avoid the poisoning of vultures, including more regulation, veterinary controls, better labeling and information and/or a ban of the drug.
The EMA´s position fell short of recommending one or more of the possible solutions listed as they did not have enough elements and/or remit to evaluate their effectiveness, although they recognize that only a ban would reduce the risks to zero. It was up to the EU Commission to decide if they would start a formal referral process reviewing the marketing authorization of veterinary diclofenac (approved for sale in 5 EU countries, including Italy and crucially Spain, which holds 90% of all European vultures). Veterinary diclofenac is marketed by the Italian company FATRO, which used loopholes in the EU risk assessment guidelines for veterinary drugs to get it approved in Italy and Spain, in spite of a solid and massive body of evidence about its impacts on vultures and other wildlife.
Veterinary diclofenac has caused a massive decline in vultures in the Indian subcontinent (95% declines of several species, driving to extinction some of the most abundant vulture species in the world in the last 20 years), and was finally banned there. Vultures provide key ecosystem services, removing tons of livestock carcasses from the countryside, and helping to control disease.
Due to the high standards of drug control in Europe, compared to countries like India, conservationists had not been overly worried about instituting a diclofenac ban in Europe. In fact, nine vulture conservation projects had already received 10.7 million Euro (nearly $15 million) between 2008 and 2012. It is thus puzzling that in the spring of 2013, the Spanish Agency for Medicines authorized the use of diclofenac by veterinarians on pigs and cattle within Spain. Other European countries are also marketing diclofenac —in Italy, it is available under the name Reuflogin for use on horses, cattle and pigs.
Spain contains eight of Europe’s ten vulture species. Of these, four are considered rare and threatened, and receive some protection under European law. The Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is Endangered and the cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) is Near Threatened, while two others, the griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) and the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), have benefited from decades of conservation efforts and have gradually recovered population numbers.
A technical report on diclofenac published by the Vulture Conservation Foundation emphasizes the magnitude of Spain’s role in vulture conservation: “With more than 70,000 griffon vultures (90% of the European population), 5,000 cinereous vultures (97% of the European population), 3,000 Egyptian vultures (85% of the European population) and 300 bearded vultures (67% of the European population), Spain is the most important country on the continent for these species—and for some of them (e.g griffon and cinereous vulture) the most important country in the world.”
Okay, fast forward to November 2015 and what is the EU doing to prevent the danger to ‘our’ European vultures? Well I can do no better than to quote Chris Bowden (RSPB’s Globally Threatened Species Officer, and Programme Manager of the consortium of ‘SAVE’ partners – Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction) from his recent guest blog on Mark Avery’s Standing up for Nature.
"The latest headlines for European vultures remain that one Italian pharmaceutical company, ‘Fatro’, recently managed (under the radar) to get diclofenac licensed for veterinary use in Italy and then with EU approval, when they surely knew all about the story in Asia. Unfortunately, no-one concerned at the EU was sharp enough to spot this and prevent it from happening. It was only when Fatro extended their market to Spain two years ago (Spain holds 80% of Europe’s vultures), that anyone noticed. Conservation groups concerned with the welfare of world populations of vultures, mistakenly assumed that this couldn’t happen in Europe – how so very wrong and embarrassing that has proved to be! It isn’t that conservation groups don’t have support from some of the higher bureaucratic spheres and veterinarians, but once the approval had been given (and despite various pleas to the company concerned and to the EU to ‘do the right thing’), it is now clear we must await dead vultures proved to have been killed by the drug – something that takes huge efforts, expertise and some considerable expense to demonstrate, before any veterinary diclofenac ban will be declared for Europe. The only steps agreed to are some additional labelling, and the excuse that regulations will be adhered to more strictly – something we already have evidence is not entirely the case. It wouldn’t be quite so exasperating if there weren’t viable safe alternatives such as meloxicam available to the vets. The combination of the Vulture Conservation Foundation, BirdLife Partners from Spain, Italy, UK and the Secretariats in Brussels and Cambridge as well as motivated individuals, zoos and veterinary organisations has so far succeeded in raising the issue, but not getting the step we really need".
So what can we do? How can we be kept up to date with the current situation, not just in Europe but also elsewhere? There are a few organisations working together to fight for our vultures and also a petition to add your voice to those of us concerned for vulture welfare and conservation.
You can add your voice (or signature) to the campaign here.
Get any further updates and background here from VCF.
And some good news. Iran bans diclofenac see here.
Vulture Conservation Foundation
Vulture Specialist Group