A common painkiller used to relieve the aches of arthritis is threatening the extinction of three types of vulture in Asia, conservationists said in a report in this week's issue of the journal Nature.
Although humans have been taking diclofenac for two decades, the report said its use in veterinary medicine is killing rare birds of prey, which ingest the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug by eating the carcasses of livestock treated with it.
“This is the first time a pharmaceutical drug has been implicated in the decline of large-vertebrate wildlife,” Dr Rick Watson, program director of the U.S.-based Peregrine Fund, said in an interview.
Over the decade that the drug has been used to treat animals in India, Pakistan and Nepal, populations of the Oriental white-backed vulture, long-billed vulture and slender-billed vulture have fallen drastically, researchers said.
Dead birds found in Pakistan contained residues of the drug and when it was fed to vultures in experiments, the birds suffered from kidney failure, according to Watson’s findings.
The fund, which is holding a summit in Nepal in February to urge the governments of India, Pakistan and Nepal to take action, has joined forces with other conservation groups to call for a ban on the drug and support for species restoration.
“Vultures have an important ecological role in the Asian environment, where they have been relied upon for millennia to clean up and remove dead livestock and even human corpses. Their loss has important economic, cultural and human consequences,” Dr Munir Virani, a biologist with the fund, said in a statement.