On 20 December 2013, at its 68th session, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) proclaimed 3 March as UN World Wildlife Day to celebrate and raise awareness of the world's wild animals and plants. We have a great story to share on how Bangladesh is leading the race to save the last remaining 260 vultures. It is a fascinating story on how species conservation is intricately linked with science-policy interaction, and dedication of actors from local to global level.
The new year ushered in a big milestone for the vultures of Bangladesh, as the Cabinet of the country, chaired by the Prime Minister, approved a proposal to ban the production of ketoprofen in Bangladesh for the conservation of the vulture species to save them from extinction. With the proclamation, Bangladesh has become the first country in the world to ban this harmful drug for the vultures.
Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) like diclofenac and ketoprofen are the primary threats to the vultures of South Asia, including Bangladesh. These drugs had caused the catastrophic decline of 99.9 percent of the vulture population in the region. When these NSAIDs are administered to cattle, and if the cow or buffalo die within a few days and is consumed by vultures, it will be fatal to the scavengers. Death comes from kidney failure.
Ketoprofen was first banned in the two Vulture Safe Zones (VSZs) of Bangladesh in 2017, covering around 47,000 sq km, which is around one-third of the country. Declared in 2014, the VSZs centred around two of the last remaining vulture colonies in Rema-Kalenga Wildlife Sanctuary in Habiganj and the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans.
The VSZs were designed to eliminate the risk of harmful drugs to the vultures. Despite ketoprofen being banned in the VSZs, and major awareness campaigns and other efforts undertaken to reduce the drugs in those areas, the latest undercover pharmacy surveys conducted in 2018 showed that 62 percent of veterinary drug suppliers still offer ketoprofen, that's only a 10 percent reduction from earlier survey data.
Ketoprofen infiltrated into the safe zones, as it was difficult to control the flow of the drug while it remained available elsewhere in the country. Hence, there has been no other option but to ban the ketoprofen all over the country.
Previously, in 2010, the Bangladesh Government banned the most harmful drug, diclofenac, across the country and encouragingly the last undercover pharmacy survey showed that there is no diclofenac present in the market.
The banning of ketoprofen was a concerted effort by various stakeholders, pharmaceutical companies and well-wishers of the vultures in Bangladesh and South Asia. The process was spearheaded by the Bangladesh National Vulture Recovery Committee (BNVRC) under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the Bangladesh Forest Department.
Mr. Md. Shahab Uddin MP, the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change mentioned that the tens of millions of villagers who rear cows for a living in Bangladesh will not be impacted by the ban, as local pharmaceutical companies have already been tasked with producing an alternative to ketoprofen which isn't harmful to vultures.
Mr. Raquibul Amin, Country Representative of IUCN Bangladesh said, "The decision to ban ketoprofen across the country will be a milestone in stopping the extinction of vultures in Bangladesh." He added, "Steps must be taken immediately to ban other similar toxic NSAIDs that may enter the market after ketoprofen is banned."
Across the globe, the approval of ketoprofen banning in Bangladesh has been hailed as a major victory for the conservation of vultures across the region and a milestone step in wildlife conservation. Internationally, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and global vulture consortium, Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), have provided long-term support to make this ban a reality.
"Ketoprofen was shown to be toxic to vultures in 2009. Bangladesh has led the way, first by banning veterinary use of the drug in its two Vulture Safe Zones some years ago, and now by banning it throughout the country," Professor Rhys Green of Cambridge University, and Chair of SAVE stated.
Mr. Chris Bowden of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), UK said, "Bangladesh is showing important leadership by banning ketoprofen across the country. This will go down in history as a major milestone in Asian vulture conservation".
Policy actions based on science were instrumental steps to support local actions, which included establishment of a Vulture Feeding Station, to provide supplemental food free of harmful drugs, as well as the creation of a Vulture Rescue Centre to rescue and rehabilitate sick and injured vultures. IUCN Bangladesh initiated community-based VSZ management practices with the Forest Department, where Vulture Conservation Teams formed from the local communities were given responsibilities for the conservation of the vultures. All of these tasks are vital to save the vultures.
However, there are still some works left to completely remove ketoprofen from the market, and promote the safer alternative, meloxicam.
Other stakeholders that have played important roles include the Department of Livestock Services (DLS), the Directorate General of Drug Administration (DGDA), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Bangladesh bird club, IUCN member Prokiti O Jibon Foundation, and numerous conservationists of the country.
Large-scale awareness campaigns with important stakeholders from local veterinarians and pharmacy owners to major pharmaceutical companies are urgently needed to disseminate knowledge about drug safety and achieve effective removal of the drug from the market.
IUCN has been working to engage the pharmaceutical companies in Bangladesh and has been working closely with two of the largest pharmaceutical companies, Renata Limited and ACME Laboratories Limited.
IUCN through Saving Asian's Vulture from Extinction (SAVE), a global partnership of 24 renowned organisations, assisted Renata and ACME with free access to the formulation and protocol to produce effective batches of meloxicam to help mainstream their meloxicam products across the country.
In return, both the companies have provided subsidies to IUCN for distributing free meloxicam in rural areas. IUCN is aiming to extend this support to other pharmaceutical companies in order to further promote production of meloxicam, and ensure widespread availability in local markets.
As this year's World Wildlife Day is celebrated under the theme "Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet", conserving the vultures through protecting their nests in large tree species warrant forest conservation in VSZs.
Moreover, to conserve wildlife and forests, we need to embrace the concept of community conservation areas along with protected areas. In this regard, Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) highlights Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures (OECMs) as a tool to engage the community in conservation.
The target aims to conserve at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem service through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs).
Community engagement can ensure this system to connect two protected areas with vulture colonies as well as two VSZs, which will also contribute in achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 14.5. The post-2020 Biodiversity Framework now sets an ambitious target to protect and conserve 30 percent of the globe by 2030.
In a densely populated country like Bangladesh, increasing protected area coverage is a major challenge. Mainstreaming the concept of OECM is an opportunity for both conserving our biodiversity outside the protected areas and also fulfil the global commitment.
On this year's Wildlife Day, while Bangladesh takes pride in demonstrating leadership to save a signature wildlife species like vulture, the effort to promote forest conservation and forest wildlife management models and practices can be further strengthened to ensure human well-being and the long-term conservation of wildlife species. The ecosystem services to be derived in this process will definitely assist in sustaining the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in Bangladesh.