Veterinary use of the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drug diclofenac in South Asia has resulted in the collapse of populations of three vulture species of the genusGyps to the most severe category of global extinction risk. Vultures are exposed to diclofenac when scavenging on livestock treated with the drug shortly before death. Diclofenac causes kidney damage, increased serum uric acid concentrations, visceral gout, and death. Concern about this issue led the Indian Government to announce its intention to ban the veterinary use of diclofenac by September 2005. Implementation of a ban is still in progress late in 2005, and to facilitate this we sought potential alternative NSAIDs by obtaining information from captive bird collections worldwide. We found that the NSAID meloxicam had been administered to 35 captiveGyps vultures with no apparent ill effects. We then undertook a phased programme of safety testing of meloxicam on the African white-backed vultureGyps africanus, which we had previously established to be as susceptible to diclofenac poisoning as the endangered AsianGyps vultures. We estimated the likely maximum level of exposure (MLE) of wild vultures and dosed birds by gavage (oral administration) with increasing quantities of the drug until the likely MLE was exceeded in a sample of 40G.
africanus. Subsequently, sixG. africanus were fed tissues from cattle which had been treated with a higher than standard veterinary course of meloxicam prior to death. In the final phase, ten Asian vultures of two of the endangered species(Gyps bengalensis,Gyps indicus) were dosed with meloxicam by gavage; five of them at more than the likely MLE dosage. All meloxicam-treated birds survived all treatments, and none suffered any obvious clinical effects. Serum uric acid concentrations remained within the normal limits throughout, and were significantly lower than those from birds treated with diclofenac in other studies. We conclude that meloxicam is of low toxicity toGyps vultures and that its use in place of diclofenac would reduce vulture mortality substantially in the Indian subcontinent. Meloxicam is already available for veterinary use in India.