All these European conservation efforts would be useless if the use of veterinary diclofenac becomes widespread.
Following recent catastrophic declines of vultures in Asia that left landscapes littered with carcasses, vultures in Europe and Africa may be set to follow, according to BirdLife International.
The warning comes following the discovery that a veterinary drug that's lethal to vultures even at low doses is commercially available in Europe.
"Vultures play a fundamental role that no other birds do: they clean our landscapes", said Iván Ramírez, Head of Conservation for BirdLife International in Europe and Central Asia.
And that means they are for human and animal health as they clean up the rotting remains of dead animals.
Diclofenac has already wiped out vultures in South Asia
Used to treat inflammation in livestock, diclofenac has already wiped out 99% of vultures in India, Pakistan and Nepal.
A non-steroid anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) present in many commonly used drugs that are used for treating moderate pain, diclofenac is extremely toxic to vultures in small doses. Vultures eating cattle treated with a veterinary dose of diclofenac will die in less than 2 days.
The decline of vultures in Asia was shockingly fast - quicker than any other wild bird, including the Dodo. Within a decade species such as the White-rumped Vulture fell by 99.9% as a result of diclofenac in India alone - leaving only one bird in a thousand alive.
A safe alternative drug, meloxicam, has been identified and tested on vultures and a range of other bird species. The meloxicam patent is more than 10-years old, meaning any pharmaceutical company can produce it with no royalties or licence fees to pay.
But now diclofenac has reached Europe
But despite the dangers and the availablity of alternatives, BirdLife has found that the drug is commercially available in Spain and Italy - both stronghold countries for European vulture species.
Since 1996, the EU and national governments have invested significant resources on conserving vultures, and there have been at least 67 LIFE projects related to these species. Between 2008 and 2012, nine vulture conservation projects alone received €10.7 million.
"We know what we need to do in Europe - ban veterinary diclofenac", said Jim Lawrence, BirdLife's Preventing Extinctions Programme Manager. "All these European conservation efforts would be useless if the use of veterinary diclofenac becomes widespread."
Four vulture species breed in Europe: the Endangered Egyptian Vulture, the Near Threatened Cinereous Vulture, and important populations of Griffon Vulture and Bearded Vulture.
Three of the four vulture populations have been increasing steadily (except the Egyptian Vulture), partly due to the intensive conservation efforts funded by European Union budget lines.
A host of other threats in Africa
As well as the impending threat of diclofenac, a multitude of other complex threats need to be unravelled further in Africa, and investment needed to tackle them.
African vultures are facing increasing threats from poisoning (deliberate and accidental), persecution for body parts to be used in traditional medicine, habitat loss, collision with power-lines, and more.
The birds have declined in West Africa on average by 95% in three decades. Across Africa, seven of the eleven vulture species are now listed as globally threatened, with species such as Hooded Vulture recently being up-listed to Endangered in 2011.
"Three of every four old-world vulture species are already globally threatened with extinction or Near Threatened according the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species", said Kariuki Ndanganga, BirdLife Africa's Species Programme Manager.
"Unless threats are identified and tackled quickly and effectively, vultures in Africa and Europe could face extinction within our lifetime."
He is now leading an effort to raise £20,000 to identify, review, prioritize and tackle the threats to vultures across the continent.
The decline is global
Of 11 vulture species found in Africa, seven (including five of the six species endemic to Africa) are globally threatened. Five of these species joined the Red List of threatened species only in the last seven years. The Hooded Vulture - a historically widespread species - was listed as Endangered in 2011.
There are 21 species of vultures in the world, five of which can be found in the American continent. The other 16 are distributed across Africa, Europe and Asia.
Of these so-called Old World vultures, 75% are globally threatened or near-threatened, with the number of threatened species expected to rise in the next conservation status assessment.
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