Vultures and diclofenac

Photo: Goran Ekstron via wikimedia commons
Photo: Goran Ekstron via wikimedia commons

The story about diclofenac and vulture declines is an amazing one.  And it is developing a nasty new twist.

Asian vultures crashed in numbers very rapidly.  In the 1980s the Indian White-rumped Vulture was probably the commonest bird of prey in the world but its numbers (and those of other species) fell by around 99.9% in around a decade.

Biologists from the RSPB and ZSL tried to discover the cause – we thought it was probably a disease – but we were wrong and it was the Peregrine Fund who discovered that diclofenac, a drug used as a veterinary treatment of cattle, was poisoning vultures.  Tiny amounts of diclofenac could  kill vultures.  A single feed from the corpse of  a fairly recently-treated cow would be enough, when scaled up across southeast Asia, to cause the precipitous decline.

Banning diclofenac from India is quite a task – but progress is being made and there are plans to release some captive bred vultures (captive-breeding was itself a great achievement) into the wild soon.  It could be the beginning of a recovery for vultures in India, Pakistan and Nepal.  It’s a fascinating story, and I know quite a lot about it from the inside, but we’ll leave it there for now.  Fingers crossed!

The twist in the tale is that diclofenac has just been authorised for use in  Spain and Italy where most of Europe’s vultures live. This is crazy. Utterly mad!

It really wasn’t anyone’s fault that diclofenac killed millions of Asian vultures.  The drug had been tested and passed all tests.  It seems that vultures are specially and particularly susceptible to it.  And it took ages to discover what was happening.  But now we know. And we know that good alternative veterinary medicines are available that work for cattle but don’t kill vultures.

Diclofenac must be banned as a veterinary drug in Europe in any circumstances where it could lead to vultures dying.  Please add your name to this petition, now.

And by the way, if you are taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, then you may be taking diclofenac. Don’t worry – it’ll do the trick.  Just don’t let any vultures nibble you!



16 Replies to “Vultures and diclofenac”

  1. Thank you for picking this issue Mark – it is indeed the most serious threat Europe’s vultures have ever faced. The EU, after having spent tens of millions of Euros in LIFE projects related with vultures – 67 so far! – now needs to ban this vet drug, who has crept unannounced. The cost to Indian Society of the vulture crisis there has been estimated at 34 billion US. It is just a question of learning with the recent past! The Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF) and BirdLife International have already asked formally the EU and 10 EU member states to start a referral process to ban this drug. We are now waiting for action! You can see the latest details on where we are with this advocacy campaign at

    1. Hi,

      I am sending this to my doctor tomorrow:

      The damage to my kidney was the result of stones, ESWL and Diclofanac. As you will see from the article below, I have emailed the Dept of Agriculture to know if Vets in Ireland are given Diclofenac to farming animals that ends up in the food-chain?

      While waiting for replies, I have stopped drinking wine and eating red meat. I also have started a kidney cleanse with CHARCOAL CAPSULES 260mg (4gr) X20 a day.
      It was this part of the article that “jumped out at me”!


      For G. africanus, samples of spleen, kidney, trachea, lung, heart, liver, pancreas, bursa, brain, peripheral nerve, crop, proventriculus, ventriculus, duodenum, ileum, colon, cloaca, and skeletal muscle collected in 10% formalin and 100% ethanol for processing for light microscopic examination. After fixation the tissue were routinely processed, sectioned at 4 microns and stained with Haematoxylin and Eosin for examination.

      Histological examinations of both diclofenac-treated G. africanus revealed significant lesions in the kidneys, spleen and liver only, with extensive uric acid crystal formation within the kidneys and liver. The changes within the kidneys were widespread and severe, and were characterized mainly by necrosis of the lining cells of the proximal convoluted tubules (characterized by eosinophilia, pyknosis, karryorhexis and desquamation). A lesser number of tubules showed marked dilatation. The glomeruli and distal convoluted tubules appeared unaffected, and within the medullary cones the medullary loops were randomly dilated. Changes within the spleen and liver were similar, with multifocal areas of necrosis characterized by fibrin and uric acid crystal depostition.

      Similar histological examinations were performed on tissues from G. fulvus. At post-mortem all diclofenac-treated G. fulvus showed extensive visceral gout, and one bird showed articular gout. Extensive uric acid crystal deposition was found in the liver, spleen thoracic and abdominal air sacs, pericardium and myocardium. Kidneys of G. fulvus were pale and mottled in colour. These results from G. africanus and G. fulvus are similar to those of Oaks et al. 2004 for diclofenac-treated G. bengalensis (Oaks et al. 2004; Supplementary Information). (end of quote)

      You state:

      The twist in the tale is that diclofenac has just been authorised for use in Spain and Italy where most of Europe’s vultures live. This is crazy. Utterly mad!

      I need to know if Diclofenac is given to IRISH & ENGLISH livestock?

      Can you help me?


  2. As you say Mark, this seems completely insane. Can you shed any light on how it can have happened? Will the threat posed by diclofenac have been wilfully ignored or can it have been licensed here in ignorance of its history in the sub-contininent. Both possibilities seem incredible and one wonders what a drug would need to do to miss out on licensing? A quick look on Google suggests there are many manufacturers of this drug so not sure who to target for complaints/boycotting…

    1. Hugh – the drug is out of patent (or whatever) I believe so it can be manufactured by many organisations.

      It is puzzling. I can only suggest that the licensing authorities were unaware of the Asian situation – but that suggests a big hole in the licensing procedures, doesn’t it.

      And I wonder who sought the licences. A drugs company really ought to have known the facts.

      I really don’t know – perhaps there are others out there who can fill in the gaps. You ask the right questions I think.

      1. Mark, Hugh,
        Thank you for your interest. There are three ways a vet drug can legally appear in the EU Market – through a central marketing authorisation from the EU/European Medecines Agency (automatically valid for the 28 EU countries), through a mutual recognition process (quite complex, also involving the EU, basically extending to other countries a national permit), or simply by getting a national permit for sale in one country only. In this case, the drug has been licensed only in Italy (ages ago, under our noses) and in Spain (summer 2013, when we found out). The company behind these requests is Italian (called FATRO – they have a subsidiary in Spain). Unfortunately the risk assessments done for the national permits were very, very poor (this is where the link broke – and it is also the base of our reasoned opinion to ban it now!), and do not mention vultures at all, even though the company now recognizes they were aware of the vulture crisis in India. They claim that cattle management is very different in Europe and in India (true) and that risks of diclofenac-treated cattle entering the vulture food chain are minimal (false, as we have argued – in many regions of Spain livestock carcasses are now allowed again to be left in the fields, and hundreds of tonnes of carcasses are deposited every weak in many vulture feedign stations). You can read all this, and a lot more other technical details, from documents – see Best, Jose Tavares, Director, Vulture Conservation Foundation

        1. Thank you Jose. I am still a little unclear though. Is it the case that the company seeking the license is responsible for the risk assessments, in which case what incentive is there for the company to flag issues such as the vulture poisoning? If instead (as one feels should be the case) the risk assessment is done by the licensing authority then it seems that they are remarkably poor at their job, in Italy and Spain at least. Good luck with your work towards a ban.

        2. About this time last year I was sitting on a hillside in the Spanish Pyrenees watching several wheelbarrows full of carcasses being spread out over the mountain for the vultures. Local groups put in huge efforts to sustain their population of vultures and also attract visitors to this part of the world. It would be a tragedy if this was to stop.

          I signed the Spanish petition and also passed it on to several others, at the moment only eight more signatures required to hit the target of 1000.
          Muchas gracias.

  3. Hi Hugh. The risk assessments are the responsability of the national competent agencies, so in this case both failed. EU guidelines on Non-Steroid Anti-Inflammatory Drugs risk assessments do not include any compulsory testing or verification with vultures (which they should), but given all the known science from the Indian crisis, common sense suggests these should be considered, and they were not. All the best, Jose Tavares

  4. Well done Mark for highlighting this very serious situation,for the Italian company to try and get this drug passed for use in Europe can only suggest that they are only interested in the money they can make and that the wildlife is of no interest to them at all.Shame on them!

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