A diclofenac-free status: No mean feat for Nepal

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Diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug commonly used in veterinary medicine, has been linked to vulture population declines in South Asia. When a vulture ingests this drug, it causes renal failure and results in the scavenger’s death. As the population of the natural cleansers of the carcasses declines, carcasses are left in the environment to rot, spreading various infectious pathogens to humans and animals in their close periphery population, posing a big threat to public health. 

Nepal is home to nine species of vultures, eight of which are either threatened or near threatened. 

The country was home to almost a million vultures until the 1980s. But due to a massive use of diclofenac sodium in livestock since the 1990s and its residual effect on carcasses of the dead animals, which is the feed source for vultures, the population of vulture had been declining massively, with almost 91 percent of the vulture population lost by the year 2001. 

Out of the nine species found in Nepal, four species, namely slender-billed vulture (G tenuirostris), white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis), Indian vulture (G indicus), and red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) are now critically endangered.

This dwindling population of vultures has raised concern among conservationists and several initiatives are in progress to arrest this decline. This includes the government’s decision to ban the production, import, sale and use of diclofenac in animals since 2006. 

Despite this ban, it took 17 years to declare Nepal diclofenac-free, which, nonetheless, is a commendable step in the field of vulture conservation and protection of ecological crises resulting from declining vulture populations.

Against this backdrop, a complete phase-out of diclofenac became possible through collaborative efforts of stakeholders like government agencies, veterinary professionals, pharmaceuticals and vulture conservation groups including Bird Conservation Nepal. 

The use of vulture safe anti-inflammatory drugs such as the Meloxicam Sodium and Tolfenamic Acid, public awareness campaigns and regulatory measures of the government have played a significant role in making Nepal diclofenac-free. 

Summing up, other nations dealing with similar problems, especially South Asian countries, can learn a lot from Nepal’s experience on how to work collaboratively on the protection of endangered species and ecological well-being. The involvement of various stakeholders with a collaborative approach and use of safe drugs should be the top priority of any nation as they seek to mitigate the impact of diclofenac on vulture population and maintain a healthy ecosystem and biodiversity.

The author is a veterinary officer at the Department of Livestock Services

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