Sixteen years after India banned veterinary use of diclofenac, found to be toxic for vultures, scientists and conservationists are calling for a ban on veterinary painkiller aceclofenac.

In fact, it’s one of three veterinary drugs that need to be banned for being “vulture-toxic”, say conservationists, who have approached the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to raise the issue with the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI). The other two drugs are nimesulide and ketoprofen. A public interest litigation on the issue is also at the Delhi High Court.

Asian vulture population

India is home to about 80 per cent of the Asian vulture population, and four of the nine species are critically endangered, says Abhishek Ghoshal, Conservation Scientist with BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society).

“Aceclofenac is a pro-drug and gets converted in the body of large cattle to diclofenac (the banned drug),” Ghoshal told businessline, of the danger the drug poses to the vulture that feeds on the carcass. The other two drugs too are vulture-toxic, he said, concerned at their impact on certain species already on the brink. In March 2022, dossiers on these drugs were presented to the MoEFCC, along with information on alternative drugs (meloxicam and tolfenamic acid) that are vulture-safe, so this could be taken up with the DCGI, he said. In May, a lawyer approached the Delhi High Court on the issue.

State authorities have the authority to act, based on the evidence provided, even as the Centre reviews the issue, says Ghoshal, citing Tamil Nadu as a good example where pro-active action had been taken. Assam too has seen affirmative action, with the alternative drug meloxicam being available at pharmacies to cattle owners, he said. The diclofenac ban in veterinary use needs to be better enforced, he said, and cattle owners too need to be educated on the efficacy of the alternatives.

A recently published study by the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) and collaborators echoed similar observations. It found that aceclofenac metabolised into diclofenac in water buffaloes, as it did in cows, threatening the already critically endangered Gyps vultures in South Asia. “We recommend an immediate ban on the veterinary use of aceclofenac across vulture range countries,” the paper said.

AM Pawde, a co-author of the paper and Principal Scientist and Incharge IVRI, said, “Government is spending crores in vulture conservation programmes, but this is getting affected,” by the unregulated use of drugs like aceclofenac in large animals.

Chris Bowden, programme manager-SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vulture’s from Extinction) also calls for aceclofenac’s ban, as it is effectively diclofenac, he says, and a loophole is being exploited “by manufacturers and irresponsible vets and practioners at the cost of vultures…”

Several mid-size drugmakers make aceclofenac and combinations, say the conservationists, concerned about the manufacturing practices and regulatory checks on these companies and products, and the end-result on vultures. Given recent incidents of toxic contaminants found in cough syrups, they say, the situation with human medicine would only be mirrored, if not worse with veterinary drugs.