Saving vultures at the cost of livestock?

The painful ailments are very frequently attended by the veterinarians
File Photo
File PhotoGK Photo

 The news regarding imposition of ban on manufacture and use of two pain relieving drugs in livestock to tackle the vulture crisis was carried by many national newspapers ahead of the Central Govt. Notification S.O. 3448(E) dated 31st July, 2023. As a student of the veterinary sciences, I consider the decision a short term and insufficient measure that may give rise to bigger crisis affecting primarily livestock but having ramifications to human population as well.

"Pain is a more terrible lord of mankind than even death itself" - Schweitzer.

Just like humans, the animal vertebrates and even several invertebrates are bestowed with similar nociceptive mechanism and the pain phenomenon. An important welfare issue, the pain affects not only the quality of life but also at times may be intolerable leading to grave outcomes. Production losses from the livestock and the farmer’s returns decline considerably. In the food animal practice, the painful ailments are very frequently attended by the veterinarians. Ignorance of our farmers regarding animal welfare and health together with the casual approach of other stakeholders adds to the miserable conditions of the livestock. The pain detection threshold is approximately the same in humans and animals and in delayed cases the severity of pain gets augmented through a mechanism called peripheral & central sensitization.

The animals can't communicate the way humans do and the livestock species being prey animals have learnt to hide the pain. Thus its assessment in animals is a challenge. However good farmers and the real veterinarians on careful examination can identify the pain related alterations in animal behaviour and physiology.

Many sequential events of nociception and components of pain have been elucidated in the recent past. Simultaneously several pain relieving (analgesic) drugs were developed for its successful and timely management. Five such general classes of drugs (Opioids, Ketamine, NonSteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs or NSAIDs, Local Anaesthetics & Alpha-2 adrenergics) exist today. For general clinical practice, the NSAIDs due to their several advantages and benefits, availability and feasibility, have become the most frequently used drugs worldwide. Although possessing multiple properties; analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antipyretic and anti-endotoxemic, yet the NSAIDs are not free from side effects. Indiscriminate use may result in kidney and liver damage, stomach ulceration and the blood clotting may be hampered. Among several NSAIDs currently available, the subgroup called selective preferential Cox-2 that includes meloxicam, ketoprofen, carprofen and etodolac are comparatively safer and therefore preferable for use in veterinary patients.

The crisis emanating from the drastic and dramatic reduction (from estimated 40 million in 1980s to just 19 thousand in 2017) in the scavenger vulture population in South Asian countries, a serious concern of ecological significance is being attributed to the kidney damage of the vultures from feeding on livestock carcasses. The research by a team of scientists led by Dr. Lindsay Oaks in 2003 claimed diclofenac, an effective pain relieving medicine in animals as the main culprit. The drug was subsequently banned in India for use in livestock in March, 2006. The neighbouring countries followed imposition of ban subsequently. It is surprising to note that after 17 years of the ban, the vulture number did not increase as expected and they continue as critically endangered and endangered species in the IUCN list. Taking the issue seriously, the central govt. has been convinced to exclude two more drugs; ketoprofen and aceclofenac (claimed to be equally toxic to cattle as diclofenac) immediately from use in the livestock species. One more related drug; nimesulide is also in queue to receive the same fate.

It may not be out of place to mention that as per the available literature the Cox-2 preferential drugs may have fewer adverse effects but none of the NSAIDs is totally safe. Thus the remaining members of the group are likely to be outlawed in future if vulture number & longevity does not improve. Consequently millions of food animals will have to bear terrible pain, inflammation and toxemia annually without these magic drugs. The analgesics of the other groups are either controlled drugs, very short acting and suitable in anaesthetic combinations only, therefore can’t be used in general veterinary practice. Under such circumstances, the non-availability of similar or better alternatives could jeopardize the health of majority of our domestic animals. The production of foods of animal origin and the farmer’s financial returns will get curtailed significantly. Malnutrition and health problems of ever increasing human population may also get multiplied. The imposition of ban on analgesic drugs may have serious consequences extending even beyond the livestock animals.

The complex issue deserves debate at length and a multipronged strategy. The concerned agencies and stakeholders need to take the matter seriously, devise and make possible implementation of several short- as well as long-term measures based on the peculiarities and contribution of all the involved animal species.

Following few suggestions may also be taken note of:

1. Scientific disposal of animal carcasses should be the first and the most important priority step. Pertinent to mention that Spain with ninety percent (90%) vulture population of the whole Europe, has not banned use of diclofenac in livestock. Sound carcass disposal system in place is the main reason for finding no need to take such a decision. This single measure if undertaken precisely will also reduce chances of spread of diseases particularly those of zoonotic nature.

2. The continued education and regular sensitization of the practicing veterinarians on the rational use of NSAIDs and adoption of newer concepts like preemptive/preoperative and balanced analgesia should be encouraged. Additionally they should be guided to advocate and apply the non-pharmacological approaches to alleviate pain and distress including good husbandry practices, nutritional support, acupuncture and acupressure.

3. The encouragement of quackery by recruiting bare-foot vets and just-literate youth for artificial insemination in cattle should be stopped. Paraveterinary institutions producing sufficient number of two year diploma holders and the recruitment of registered paravets only should be ensured. Such sufficiently trained paravets are expected to work strictly as per their training and mandate and not indulge in the practice of administering drugs to animals without sufficient knowledge of their benefits and side effects.

4. The livestock disease surveillance, prevention, diagnosis and management programmes be up scaled immediately so that minimum quantity of drugs are needed.

5. Scientists should be encouraged and adequately funded to develop new, safe and affordable analgesics feasible for general and field practice.

6. Other causes of drastic reduction in vulture population (indicated also by unsatisfactory results obtained after almost two decades without use of diclofenac in livestock) are to be explored. Use of pesticides and insecticides in agricultural practices, deforestation, spread of bacterial and viral infections and parasitic infestations, increased competition with other birds and animals residing in tree trunks etc need thorough investigation and remedial measures.

Hope, the efforts to restore the number of the critically endangered vultures is not restricted to the imposition of ban on veterinary drugs. Holistic approach addressing simultaneously the wildlife and the veterinary concerns and thus maintaining ecological balance as well as the opportunity for quality life for all the species deserves reflection. It is time for the “speaking animal” to introspect and take initiatives to improve long-term results instead of shifting the responsibility of deaths in one “dumb species” to the “other”.

Prof. Mujeeb Fazili,  Ex-Associate Director Research (A.S),  SKUAST-Kashmir.

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