The head of Portugal’s Food and Veterinary agency has received an application to authorise diclofenac for veterinary use. The problem here is that as well as being used in medicine to treat sick cattle, the drug is fatal to birds that eat carrion.
Birdlife Europe and Portuguese environmental organisations already have appealed to Portuguese government not to authorise the drug, saying it threatens already rare species such as the Black vulture and the Imperial-Iberian eagle.
"For Birdlife Europe and Central Asia, it is of great concern that Portugal is considering approving the veterinary use of diclofenac," said Birdlife Europe, after an international meeting in Toledo, Spain, last weekend to finalise a plan for the conservation of vultures across Europe.
In humans, diclofenac has long been used as an anti-inflammatory, without any serious effect; but the same is not true of birds:
"According to the extensive scientific information available ... diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, causes acute renal failure in vultures and also in eagles of the genus Aquila, which culminates in a quick death. These birds die from renal collapse up to two days after ingestion of tissues from animals treated with diclofenac.”
This communiqué was signed by Birdlife, the Vulture Conservation Foundation and five Portuguese organisations: the League for the Protection of Nature, SPEA (Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds), Quercus, Transhumance and the Nature Association and Palombar.
These Portuguese associations already have warned the Portuguese authorities about the impact of diclofenac on carrion-eating birds and suggest that there are several alternatives available in that do the same job, but don’t kill already-threatened species.
Diclofenac was authorized for veterinary use in India in 1993, with devastating results for many thousands of vultures. In a short time, the populations of these birds were reduced by 97% so the Indian government immediately banned the drug which ended up, none-the-less, nearly wiping out three Asian vulture species.
Last year, a study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology warned that veterinary medicines containing diclofenac may kill more than 6,000 vultures per year in Spain.
In Portugal, there now are important populations of high-threatened birds, including vultures and some large eagles: Black Vulture, Griffon Vulture, Iberian Imperial Eagle and the Royal Eagle. Almost all of these majestic birds have small populations with the Iberian Peninsula housing the most important groups in Europe.
Joaquim Teodósio of SPEA and Eduardo Santos of LPN commented that "with populations recovering, in some cases, this new threat of diclofenac may compromise or even exterminate some of these populations."
The heads of SPEA and LPN warn that "only the non-authorisation of the drug by the national authorities could prevent the increased risk of exposure to this substance in Portugal."
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Agriculture's office, Luís Capoulas Santos, confirmed that authorisation of the use of diclofenac is being evaluated by the veterinary service but that "no decision has been made."