Vultures dying from pain medication

10 October 2017 - 15:29
By Shelley Seid
Image: Bruce Gorton

A popular painkiller used to treat cattle is killing vultures‚ many of them critically endangered species.

Researchers from the University of Pretoria‚ the UK together with conservation partners including Vulpro conducted safety trials on the anti inflammatory drug‚ carprofen‚ which is highly effective in controlling pain in cattle and horses.

Kerri Wolter‚ of vulture conservation organisation Vulpro‚ said the researchers were running safety trials‚ not toxicity trials when they discovered the harmful effects of the drugs.

“We were looking for drugs that we thought were potentially safe for vultures.”

Many farmers are using a wide variety of drugs to treat animals and the carcasses of those that die are often left out for vultures. “The chance that vultures are exposed to these toxic drugs is higher than ever‚” said Wolter.

The drug diclofenac brought three species of vulture to the brink of extinction in Asia‚ and has been banned in India since 2006.

While carprofen has been found to be safer than diclofenac it comes from the same family as do many of the drugs used on domesticated animals. The toxicity of most of them is unknown.

Birds that have ingested diclofenac show symptoms and die within 42 hours. With carprofen there are no symptoms. “Within three days the birds simply drop dead.”

Wolter said that vultures typically eat in large groups. “This means that potentially you could find up to 50 birds at a time exposed to the poison. A couple of contaminated carcasses could halve the population of vultures.

“There is a very real chance of them going extinct in our lifetime.”

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature‚ of the 22 species of vulture worldwide‚ 75% are under threat.

There is a growing number of “vulture restaurants”‚ fixed sites where carcasses are brought for vultures to feed off.

“We have been encouraging the creation of such sites which are also helpful to farmers as it is an easy way to dispose of an animal carcass‚” said Wolter

“However we need to make sure that the restaurants are managed correctly and that landowners understand the importance of the food. They need to be able to trust the source of the carrion and refuse to take it if it has been treated.” So far‚ only one drug used to treat domesticate animals‚ meloxicam‚ has been shown not to kill vultures.