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Thursday, February 26, 2009

ENVIRONMENT-PAKISTAN: Warnings From Vanishing Vultures By Zofeen Ebrahim*

The mystery of vanishing vultures over South Asia was cracked by Virani who led research in the Punjab province of Pakistan after the decline was first noted in 1997 by the prestigious Bombay Natural History Society, India.

"It was in April 2003 that we discovered that veterinary diclofenac was the main reason that white-backed vultures were dying," said Virani, who is currently with the ornithology section in the National Museum of Kenya. Diclofenac is a painkiller commonly given to sick livestock.

While there may be other reasons for the vanishing vultures, Virani attributes the decline in South Asia to birds ingesting contaminated carcasses. "We collected dead vultures on a daily basis over four years, examining some 1,000 dead vultures," said Virani.

TPF found that 80 percent of the dead birds had a condition called "visceral gout" in which a chalky white paste of uric acid engulfs internal organs. But the cause eluded the scientists who were baffled by the fact that there was no ready evidence of a pathogen.

The breakthrough came in December 2002 when a vulture died of gout in a U.S. zoo after being treated with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, said Virani. "Our survey showed that veterinary diclofenac was the most commonly used form of medication on cattle and caused gout in vultures resulting in their deaths.’’

By 2006 diclofenac was banned, but environmentalists fear that it is still being used across South Asia. "It is available in the smaller towns across the country," confirmed Uzma Khan, manager at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Pakistan, talking to IPS from Lahore over phone.

"The WWF, along with IUCN and a few other non-governmental organisations, were very active in lobbying for the ban. We emphasised that the drug must be completely off the market. But we could not enforce the ban and hoped the government would support us,’’ said Khan.


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