The Indian Vulture Crisis and its Relationship to Sustainable Chemistry

The Indian Vulture Crisis and its Relationship to Sustainable Chemistry

This month, the University of Toronto’s Green Chemistry Initiative and the Gainesville ToxSquad teamed up to co-author a post about the Indian Vulture Crisis…

By Shira Joudan (GCI) and Alexis Wormington (ToxSquad)

Pharmaceuticals have drastically changed our society, quality of life, and life expectancy. Advances in chemistry are the driving forces behind the optimization of pharmaceuticals and other synthetic chemicals which have shaped the way we live our lives.  Sometimes, a chemical used has undesired side effects, such as non-target toxicity to animals in the environment. A historic example of the consequences of chemical use is the toxicity of the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) to eagles, which was profiled in Rachel Carson’s famous book Silent Spring. Although current regulations require extensive toxicity testing for new chemicals, those with a high production volume can still elicit unforeseen environmental effects on the environment.

More recently, there have been unforeseen environmental implications of chemical use in another essential bird population in India, a phenomenon now known as the Indian Vulture Crisis. Between 1993 and 2000, Indian vultures (Gyps bengalensis, Figure 1) began to mysteriously disappear, with the population declining by over 97% in less than 10 years (Figure 2).1 Researchers worked frantically to identify the cause, and came up with several theories ranging from infectious disease to food shortage to chemical exposure. Scientists began noticing visceral gout on a majority of the dead vultures,2 which is a sign of kidney failure in birds, and from there it didn’t take long to determine the culprit was a chemical contaminant. In 2004, a paper reported startling amounts of diclofenac (Figure 3) in the tissues of the dead vultures, providing compelling evidence that the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) was the cause of the population collapse.3 To figure out how to restore the vulture population, or at least slow down its decline, researchers needed to figure out how the vultures were being exposed to diclofenac, why it was killing them, and if there was a chemical alternative to the deadly pharmaceutical.


Figure 1. Two G. bengalensis adults with a dead chick.


Figure 2. Catastrophic decline in Gyps vultures in India over a 10-year period. Results from vulture nest monitoring in Koeladeo National Park from 1985 through 2001. [4]

So, what happened?


Figure 3. Chemical structure of diclofenac, the pharmaceutical implicated as the cause of the Indian Vulture Crisis.

The problem began when diclofenac was approved for veterinary use in India in the early 1990s, where it was widely utilized to treat inflammation in cattle due to its efficacy and affordable cost. As a result, many livestock carcasses in India were contaminated with diclofenac, which brought catastrophic consequences to any vulture that consumed the carcasses. Vultures within the Gyps genus cannot metabolize diclofenac, and are extremely sensitive to the drug, with toxic doses ranging from just 0.1-0.8 mg/kg depending on the species.1 A vulture would receive a lethal dose of diclofenac after consuming a small amount of contaminated tissue, and die of renal failure within 48 hours. Just one contaminated carcass affected several vultures at once due to their group feeding behaviour, and because of this, diclofenac contamination in as little as 1 of every 200 carcasses would have been enough to cause the decline in the vulture population.5

Although diclofenac is either banned or not used for veterinary purposes in most countries, it is still legally utilized throughout Europe, which has drawn controversy in those countries where it is approved for use in food animals.6

Human-Health Impact of the Vulture Crisis

India is a developing country and relies more on natural processes for the removal of dead animals, where scavengers like vultures play a huge role. With the loss of the vultures, less efficient scavengers such as rats and dogs have moved in to replace them, leading to major problems with disease in the affected areas. Unlike vultures, which are terminal hosts for pathogens due to their strong stomach acid, dogs and rats are reservoirs for diseases – and now these animals are the primary scavengers in India. A rise in feral dogs has caused an increase in the number of rabies cases in humans, which has cost India approximately 998-1095 billion Rupees in healthcare costs between 1992 and 2006 (15-16.5 billion USD).7

In addition to the economic and health costs associated with a rise in infectious diseases, the disappearance of the vultures has also lead to issues with the prolonged decomposition of carcasses. Vultures play a major role in the decomposition process – a group of them can skeletonize a body within a few hours.8 But in their absence, bodies take days or months to decompose, which can lead to issues with water or food contamination. This ‘carcass crisis’ has had cultural implications as well, threatening the ancient Parsi burial tradition where bodies are not buried, but disposed of through natural means (i.e. vultures). Without the vultures, the Parsis struggle to continue the two-thousand-year-long practice9 and are forced to seek alternative methods of body disposal, causing a deep divide within the community.

Diclofenac and Green Chemistry – Could this have been prevented?

The short answer: probably not. For a drug to be approved for human or animal use, toxicity research must be conducted (although these requirements vary by country, read more about how drugs are approved in Canada10 and how drugs are approved in the USA11). Unfortunately, potential ecosystem toxicity (ecotoxicity) is not often at the forefront of the drug-approval process. Even if ecotoxicity studies were performed with diclofenac, it is unlikely that the toxicity to vultures would have been discovered before drug approval, as vultures are not a common test animal used in these types of studies. Only a full chemical assessment with ecosystem modelling and subsequent toxicity tests could have predicted the toxicity to the vultures; but these tests are expensive, time consuming, and not the norm during the current drug-approval process.

In India, farmers cannot afford to lose animals, and rely on affordable NSAIDs such as diclofenac to improve the health and quality of life of their livestock. Since NSAID use cannot be prevented, it is up to green chemists to find a suitable replacement for diclofenac that is efficient, affordable, and less toxic to vultures.

To predict the potential toxicity of a pharmaceutical or chemical to humans and the environment, it is important to consider all interactions that occur once the compound enters the body. Every pharmaceutical has a “therapeutic index” (the difference between an effective and toxic dose),  which can vary between different species or susceptible populations (e.g. infants, elderly). If the concentration of a drug exceeds the toxic level, toxic endpoints such as renal failure or death could be observed. The toxic level of a drug depends on two major processes: drug excretion and metabolism. The sum of these two processes determines how quickly a pharmaceutical is broken down and eliminated from the body. In the case of diclofenac, vultures could not metabolize or eliminate the drug, so it was free to wreak havoc on susceptible organ systems. For an NSAID to be a suitable replacement for diclofenac, vultures should be able to break it down and excrete it safely.


Figure 4. Meloxicam, an NSAID alternative to diclofenac.

Currently, meloxicam has replaced diclofenac as an NSAID for livestock in India. Both drugs have a similar mechanism of action in the treatment of inflammation; however, unlike diclofenac, meloxicam is rapidly metabolized and excreted by vultures. In a study where different vulture species were administered meloxicam, researchers observed the production of three metabolites identical to those observed in humans during clinical trials.12 Vultures have the enzymes required for the metabolism of meloxicam (specifically cytochrome P450s and glucuronide transferase). The formation of metabolites alters the biological activity of meloxicam, increasing its water solubility and allowing for faster renal excretion.


Figure 5. Aceclofenac, an NSAID that would not be suitable as a replacement for diclofenac.

Understanding the biological interactions of a drug can also help us eliminate potential replacements for diclofenac. An example of a poor replacement for diclofenac in cattle would be aceclofenac, because it is metabolized to form diclofenac via hydrolysis.13 This particular pharmaceutical would not do anything to improve the vulture population, and should not be selected as a replacement for diclofenac.

Current status and remaining challenges

In 2016, the Indian minister of the environment launched the Gyps Vulture Reintroduction Programme with the hope of restoring the vulture population to 40 million individuals within the next decade through breeding programs.14 Although this effort to restore the Indian vultures is a step in the right direction, there are still many challenges in way of their recovery. Despite the fact that meloxicam is a safer NSAID for use in livestock, diclofenac is still obtained and used illegally among farmers in India due to its affordability. Since the ban of diclofenac for veterinary use in 2006, the decline rate of Gyps has decreased, but vultures are still likely to decline by 18% per year despite the ban.15 Until the drug is completely removed from the equation, the reintroduction and recovery of the vultures remains a challenge.




  1. Swan et al. Biology Letters 2006, 2, 279-282.
  2. Pain et al. Conservation Biology 2003, 17, 661-671.
  3. Shultz et al. R. Soc. Lond. B 2004, 271, S458-460.
  4. Prakash et al. Biological Conservation 2003, 109, 381-390.
  5. Green et al. Journal of Applied Ecology 2004, 41, 793-800.
  6. Becker, R. Nature News 2016
  7. Markandya et al. Ecological Economics 2008, 67, 194-204.
  8. Reeves, N. Journal of forensic sciences2009, 54, 523-528.
  9. India’s Parsis search for new funeral arrangements as there are not enough vultures to dispose of bodies.
  10. Government of Canada
  11. S. Food & Drug Administration
  12. Naidoo et al. Vet. Pharmacol. Therap. 2008, 31, 128-134.
  13. Galligan et al. Conservation Biology 2015, 30, 1122-1127.
  14. Government of India, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change
  15. Cuthbert, et al. PLoS One2011, 6, e19069.

Image Credits

Feature image:

Figure 1:

A New Green Chemistry Metric: The Green Aspiration Level™

A New Green Chemistry Metric: The Green Aspiration Level™

By Samantha A. M. Smith, Member-at-Large for the GCI

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Figure 1. Process materials – green mass metric relationships

Green Chemistry Principle number two, Atom Economy, focuses on metrics used to compare the efficiency of a reaction.1 However, Atom Economy doesn’t take into account solvents, reagents such as catalysts, drying agents, energy, or recyclability of any of the materials. Is it reasonable for an industry such as pharma to use such a metric? What about E-factor, which is a measure of process waste and, if “complete” (cEF = complete E-factor), also recyclability of solvents and catalysts? It’s known that the pharmaceutical industry generally has the highest E-factor values compared to petrochemicals, bulk, and fine chemicals, indicating more waste generated per mass of desired product.2 But if you wanted to compare your technology to already implemented pharmaceutical processes, where would you find such information?

Roschangar, Sheldon, and Senanayake created a new metric for such a purpose: the Green Aspiration Level™.3,4 This new metric allows one to compare an ideal process with the average commercial process in terms of environmental impact for the production of a pharmaceutical. Say you have an alternative product to Viagra™ and want to know if its production is more or less impactful. You could apply any of the existing metrics (including yield, atom economy, E-factor, and more, summarized in Table 1 of reference 3), or you could use the Green Aspiration Level™ (GAL). To do so, you determine the waste (Complete Environmental Impact Factor (cEF) or Process Mass Intensity (PMI)) and assess the complexity of the process, and use those to calculate the GAL, and in turn the Relative Process Greenness (RPG). From there, you can consult Table 1 (below) to determine the greenness rating of such a process.4

Waste and Complexity

Waste refers to a simple metric such as cEF or PMI (with reactor cleaning and solvent recycling excluded). Complexity of the process refers to the number of steps with no concession transformations, that is those that do not directly contribute to the building of the target molecules’ skeleton.5 The waste and complexity metrics require that the process starting materials are less than $100 USD/mol for proper comparison.

Green Aspiration Level™

Roschangar and coworkers have collected data on many commercial processes to develop an appropriate metric, and they currently use 26 kg of waste per kg of product as a standard based on their findings. This value is known as the average GAL, or tGAL.3,4

GAL        = (tGAL) x Complexity

= 26 x Complexity

Relative Process Greenness

RPG       = GAL/cEF

This metric is used as the comparison point for processes. The comparison can be done at different stages of development, either early or late development, and then again for those processes that are commercialized. In Table 1, there are minimum RPG values that will associate the process with an appropriate greenness percentile.

RPI         = RPG(current) – RPG(early)

RPG can also be used to determine the improvement of a process. From early development, to late development, to commercialization, the difference in consecutive RPG values will give your Relative (Green) Process Improvement (RPI). In this case, the higher the number the better.

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Table 1. Rating Matrix for Relative Process Greenness (RPG) in Pharmaceutical Drug Manufacturing [3]

It turns out the current commercial process for Viagra™ is actually quite efficient and is currently in the 90th percentile, exceeding the commercial average by 143% (RPG). The full process of determining and using this new metric, the Green Aspiration Level™, is described by Roschangar and coworkers in two very in-depth articles.3,4


1 Anastas, P. T., Warner, J. C. “Principles of green chemistry.” Green chemistry: Theory and practice (1998): 29-56.

2 Sheldon, R. A., Catalysis and Pollution Prevention, Chem. Ind. (London), 1997, 12–15.

3 Roschangar, F., Sheldon, R. A., Senanayake, C. H., Green Chem. 2015, 17, 752. DOI: 10.1039/C4GC01563K

4 Roschangar, F., Colberg, J., Dunn, P. J., Gallou, F., Hayler, J. D., Koenig, S. G., Kopach, M. E., Leahy, D. K., Mergelsberg, I., Tucker, J. L., Sheldon, R. A., Senanayake, C. H., Green Chem. 2017, 19, 281. DOI: 10.1039/c6gc02901a 

5 Crow, J. M., “Stepping toward ideality”, Chemistry World, accessed July 13th, 2017. URL:

Figures from Roschangar et al. 2015 reproduced with the permission of the Royal Society of Chemistry.