Catastrophic declines in the Indian populations of three vulture species led to the discovery that they were being poisoned by the veterinary drug diclofenac, which they ingested when feeding on cattle carcasses. Despite a ban by the Indian Government in 2006, illegal use continued to kill vultures. The Bombay National History Society (BirdLife National Partner in India) had taken part in the study that found the cause of the vultures’ decline and was keen to make the ban a success; Rio Tinto, a multinational mining corporation, wanted to support conservation projects to help achieve a Net Positive Impact on biodiversity (NPI) around their diamond mine in Madhya Pradesh State. With support from BirdLife International, these two organizations joined forces in 2014. They worked with local cattle owners, vets and pharmacies to establish a diclofenac-free Vulture Safe Zone, covering 32,000 sq km. Although it is early in the project to draw conclusions, monitoring shows that the use of diclofenac has fallen.
This project demonstrates how biodiversity can be mainstreamed into two sectors: the mining industry and the cattle sector. This is in line with Article 6(b) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which requires that parties “Integrate, as far as possible and as appropriate, the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity into relevant sectoral or cross-sectoral plans, programmes and policies.”
- Point 10 to promote intersectoral partnerships in strengthening biodiversity conservation;
- Point 18 to implement conservation programmes for endangered species outside protected areas as well as within them;
- Point 39 to integrate biodiversity into inter-sectoral programmes to identify and address elements that have adverse impacts on biodiversity;
- Point 85 to integrate biodiversity concerns across development sectors, including mining; and
- Point 105 to minimize and eliminate activities leading to the loss of biodiversity due to sources of pollution.
- It supports Aichi Target 1 by raising awareness of the ecological value of vultures, and of the steps vets and cattle owners can take to protect them.
- It supports Aichi Target 12 through its efforts to improve the conservation status of the threatened vulture species.
Since the 1980s, across the Indian subcontinent, there has been a dramatic 99% decline in populations of the White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis), Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus) and Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris). As recently as 1985, the White-rumped Vulture was among the most abundant large birds of prey in the world, but by 2000 it was critically endangered – the fastest decline of any bird ever recorded. It took until 2004 to identify the culprit as Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory treatment for livestock. Just one contaminated carcass is enough to lead to the deaths (from kidney failure) of all vultures in the surrounding area. Removing diclofenac and expanding captive breeding are the only ways to save the birds. Without the vultures to maintain a balanced ecosystem by keeping towns and rural areas clean, there has been a massive increase in rats and feral dogs. Not only are these scavengers much less efficient than vultures at disposing of animal carcasses, they cannot metabolize pathogens in the same way, so diseases have spread. Despite bans on veterinary diclofenac in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, and despite the availability of a safe alternative (meloxicam), cattle continued to be treated illegally with diclofenac. The drug remained available for human use, widely sold in large vials at ten times the recommended human dose, making illegal use for cattle cheap and easy. There was an urgent need for action with cattle owners, herders, vets and pharmacies to implement the ban at a local level, and extend it to multiple-dose vials.
Various enabling factors came together to allow this project to get off the ground. Vulture conservation is a priority for BNHS, which had first noted the birda decline, and had the scientific and local knowledge to lead action. Madhya Pradesh State is a natural habitat for the affected vultures and is also home to Rio Tinto's diamond extraction activities. For the company, vulture conservation provided an opportunity to get beyond the measures required by national legislation, build a positive reputation and implement its biodiversity strategy, especially its corporate commitment to NPI. BirdLife International brought BNHS and Rio Tinto together and stressed the potential benefits of a partnership for both organisations.
Some of the steps taken by the project were:
- A series of meetings between Rio Tinto, BNHS and BirdLife International helped identified shared objectives, leading to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in January 2014. This set out a number of conservation actions over a five year period (2014-2019), funded by Rio Tinto, including the 32,000 sq km Vulture Safe Zone.
- This partnership is distinctive in that Rio Tinto provides some of its own staff for the project, and builds their capacity to assist with implementation.
- Baseline surveys of vulture populations were followed up by regular monitoring. The project tracks other indicators, such as levels of diclofenac in cattle carcasses, and awareness of the issue among vets, public officials and farmers.
- Communication is central to the success of the Vulture Safe Zone. A campaign raises awareness among the general public of the ban on diclofenac, the Vulture Safe Zone and the valuable role of vultures. Targeted action includes training cattle owners, vets, pharmacies and public agricultural and veterinary institutions. Data collected by the project is discussed and analysed with local officials.
- In parallel to the local action, BirdLife and BNHS lobbied the Indian Government to ban multi-dose vials of diclofenac for human use.
- Public authorities have been involved at several levels. The Central Government issued the national ban on diclofenac, which is enforced at the state and local levels by a range of public bodies, including the Forest Department, Public Information Department and the drug control authorities. Agencies also work with pharmacy associations to raise awareness of the ban and the reasons behind it.
Different working styles between the partners were one of the first hurdles to overcome. The presence of BirdLife International addressed this, acting as a mediator to facilitate discussions and help both sides understand each other’s interests. Throughout the process, it also proved invaluable to have a strong champion within the company, determined to go beyond legislative compliance to achieve NPI. Concerns about the potential reputational risk for BNHS of being associated with an extractive company were addressed in two ways. First, face-to-face discussions gave Rio Tinto the chance to present the positive work it has done in the past, including with BirdLife International. Also, the MOU included an appropriate get-out clause: this provided an exit strategy, bringing more confidence on both sides in case of any future problems. All partners learned from each other during their collaboration: the NGO team has taken up some corporate approaches to project management and safety, helping to improve project delivery. The company has learnt much about the environmental and landscape context of their work and how to manage it better. The experience has changed the way Rio Tinto undertakes environmental projects in Madhya Pradesh and will form an integral part of their Biodiversity Action Plan.
Although this initiative is too recent to give measurable impacts on vulture populations, it provided the first ever baseline in the area, which will enable impacts to be tracked in the coming years. Initial data from questionnaires and carcass sampling already indicate increased awareness and a reduction in the use of diclofenac in cattle. In August 2015 the Indian government announced a ban on multi-dose vials of human formulations of diclofenac. This breakthrough will make illegal use much harder and is expected to have a positive impact on vultures. However, given the potential for a single contaminated carcass to have devastating impacts, the work to implement the strengthened ban in the Vulture Safe Zone remains critical.