‘Bird trade more of a threat than migration’

By Philippe Siuberski

Brussels – International dealing and trafficking in wild birds poses a greater risk of spreading bird flu than healthy migratory birds, which are being made into “scapegoats,” a Belgian bird protection society has warned.

Wild bird trade and smuggling “represent the principal risks of dispersion of avian flu in industrialised countries,” said Hugues Fanal, director of the Belgian bird protection league.

Migratory birds were being made the scapegoats for the spread of the disease, he claimed.

‘A general ban… would foster creation of a black market’
“Until there is proof to the contrary,” the official said, “no wild bird in good health capable of migrating has been observed to carry this virus.”

“Wild birds carrying the virus in Asia or eastern Siberia were either dead or dying, and always close to contaminated poultry farms.

“So it’s more likely that it’s domestic fowl which have contaminated wild birds and not the other way round,” Fanal claimed.

The death of a South American parrot in quarantine in Britain has prompted fears that a strain of the bird flu virus that is deadly to humans could have reached Western Europe.

On Saturday Britain urged the EU to impose a ban on the import all live wild birds.

“The government is calling on the European Commission to ban live wild birds,” a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) told AFP, after the parrot tested positive for bird flu.

Imports of poultry, which are domesticated birds, would still be allowed, said the official.

Animal welfare minister Ben Bradshaw said the formal request for such a ban had been made Saturday.

“This is actually something that we’ve been considering for some time before the death of the parrot. It just so happens that the formal request has been made now,” Bradshaw said in a BBC Radio interview.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) both appealed for an EU ban on wild birds after Friday’s announcement that the parrot had died of bird flu.

The country was awaiting results of tests to find out whether the bird had the H5N1 virus strain that has killed more than 60 people in Asia since 2003.

Britain officially registered the avian flu case Friday when the H5 strain was found in the parrot imported from Suriname and which died in British quarantine, where it had been held in the same areas as birds from Taiwan.

The European Union’s executive Commission has refrained from imposing a general ban on imports of domesticated birds such as parrots, budgerigars and canaries, arguing it would be counter-productive because it would foster creation of a black market not subject to health controls.

But this parallel black market already exists, as was shown last year when two eagles infected with avian flu were discovered at Brussels airport.

Customs officials found the pair alive in the baggage of a passenger arriving from Thailand, hidden in plastic tubing.

The French health protection agency AFSSA said Friday the advance of bird flu through Russia did not fit in with the usual flight pattern of migratory birds, but followed trans-Siberian rail routes which are major communication axes.

The “probable” hypothesis that the virus had accompanied poultry transported by human hand “does not challenge the possibility of a role played by migratory birds, but it puts into perspective the respective weight between human activities linked to legal or illegal traffic, and the propagation of the virus by wild fauna,” AFSSA noted.

Following their discovery of the dead parrot, British officials said the quarantine system had nevertheless worked well and Britain was still free of bird flu.

“The UK authorities have taken all the appropriate measures to contain the disease,” the European Commission also said approvingly in a statement here.

Brussels has imposed conditions since 2000 on imports of parrots, budgerigars and canaries including a 30-day quarantine during which the birds undergo tests for contagious disease.

The Commission says Britain’s dead parrot is the first case of avian flu being detected in quarantine in the EU.

The precautions have previously proved their worth in preventing the introduction into EU of the highly contagious Newcastle disease, the Commission noted.

Newcastle diseases attacks birds, both domestic and wild, with chickens the most vulnerable poultry, and is endemic in many countries of the world. – Sapa-AFP