Imagine this scenario – 99% of all cars have malfunctioned, causing certain death to the driver. Now, after much testing, the part responsible has been identified. And what’s more, there’s an alternative already available. What would be the logical thing to do? Should we change the part in all cars? Or should we just stop using the faulty part in cars in some places but not in others even though we know it will continue to cause cars to fail and drivers to die? Why am I asking such a nonsensical question? Clearly no-one in their right mind would sanction the use of the faulty part somewhere else. But that’s exactly what the European Union has done. The EU has, in effect, agreed to allow the part to be fitted to cars elsewhere, guaranteeing certain death. Only we’re not talking about cars, but vultures.
Let’s pick a vulture species, say the White-rumped Vulture. These were present in large numbers in the Indian sub-continent until the 1990s and were once described as perhaps the most numerous large bird of prey in the world. Since then 999 out of every 1000 White-rumped Vultures have gone. For every thousand there is now one. That’s right, numbers have fallen by a staggering 99.9%.(1)
Various groups tried to find the cause (2) without success until the culprit was discovered, an anti-inflammatory drug given to cattle called diclofenac. Traces remaining in dead cattle, eaten by the birds, caused rapid kidney failure. Now that in itself is bad enough but, in this world of ours where every natural process is linked to others, this was only the beginning. Vultures, as we know, get rid of dead livestock. As a result of no vultures, hundreds of thousands of dead animals have gone uneaten, creating breeding grounds for numerous infectious diseases, including anthrax.
And it gets worse – the loss of vultures has resulted in an increase in the number of feral dogs because there’s more for them to eat, as mammals are unaffected by diclofenac. The bites of dogs are the most common cause of human rabies. A recent study estimates that, during the period in question, there has been an increase in the feral dog population of at least 5 million. It is calculated that this has resulted in 40 million additional dog bites and nearly 50 000 extra deaths from rabies. And it is estimated that the increased number of rabies victims may have cost the Indian economy $34 billion. (3) Thirty four billion! Now the good news – an alternative medication – meloxicam – has been found to be both effective on livestock and safe for vultures.
So, this is where we are – the culprit has been identified, an effective alternative has been found, the huge economic costs are understood and the situation in India and southern Asia in general is one of slow but encouraging progress. Good stuff. Clearly, to any sane mind, all this points irrevocably towards a ban on the use of diclofenac on livestock. And that’s what has happened in India and southern Asia. A vital link in the ecological chain is slowly restoring itself. So we can relax. But, wait a moment, what’s this? It can’t be the EU allowing the faulty car part to be used in Europe, can it? Not with all those deaths elsewhere? Oh yes it can. Believe it or not it has been discovered that diclofenac has been authorised for manufacture and veterinary use in Italy and it has been distributed to other European countries. (4)
It’s been authorised for use in cattle, horses and pigs in a medication called Reuflogin. It seems that it’s been exported to the Czech Republic, Latvia, Estonia, Serbia and Turkey. And, to top it all, last year the manufacture and veterinary use of diclofenac was approved in Spain, the vulture stronghold of Europe. And how long before it rears its head in Greece, home of most of Eastern Europe’s remaining vultures? After all the efforts to stamp out illegal poisoning the idea of legal poisoning just beggars belief.
It’s hard to get one’s head around this. Are the farming and pharmaceutical lobbies so powerful that they just get what they want? Or, alternatively, does nobody in the corridors of power care, because it’s hard to believe that this can have been done out of ignorance alone? People must have known about the veterinary history of diclofenac so, somewhere along the line, it seems that vultures in Europe are expendable. Collateral damage, as they say.
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