Martin W

By MARGIE MASON | Associated Press April 27, 2006

LANG SON, Vietnam (AP) – Hired runners strap bamboo cages loaded with 20 live chickens onto their backs in China. Under cover of darkness, they navigate well-worn footpaths across a mountain into Vietnam, where bicycles wait to haul the clucking contraband away. The smugglers easily evade patrols along the rugged 1,350-kilometer (840-mile) border by using two-way radios and a network of illegal crossings that have become gateways for a new threat _ bird flu. Vietnam estimates about 4,500 chickens are trafficked into the country this way every day from China in a trade that is nearly impossible to police because of scarce resources. The H5N1 bird flu virus has recently shown up in samples taken from confiscated birds, raising the stakes in Vietnam’s battle to shift from the hardest-hit country to one that has successfully contained the virus. "I think there is a very large undercover, underground trade that is going on," said Dr. Jeff Gilbert, an animal health expert at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Vietnam. "I think the biggest risk of re-infection (in Vietnam) is infection from China." [So, FAO thinks there’s a big underground trade now? Why so little word of this from FAO over past year or more, when FAO has been so busy blaming wild birds?] Many scientists [hmm; some scientists, and many idiots; even some idiotic scientists] believe much of the worldwide spread of H5N1 is linked to the migration of wild birds, but the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health says it is investigating the possible role smuggling has played in some countries. [Taken them time, but at last may be after right culprit, not just the Tooth Fairy Bird]

Last year, Taiwan confirmed its first case of bird flu, which was found in birds smuggled from China. A Nigerian official also has blamed illegal poultry imports for introducing the virus there earlier this year, though agency spokeswoman Maria Zampaglione said that has not been confirmed. She said the organization is recommending that governments worldwide pay more attention to the illegal trade of poultry, but said China is not specifically being looked at as a source. Chinese officials have not responded to queries about whether smuggling has occurred. … a global smuggling network that has long existed hasn’t been shut down by new bird flu precautions. "There’s lots of illicit movements of livestock products around the world," said Dr. Peter Roeder, an animal health expert at the FAO’s base in Rome. "The meat comes in packed in vegetable containers and with other goods and the customs authorities just find it extremely difficult to be on top and inspecting everything."

In the past, infected beef and pork smuggled into Europe from Asia were blamed for outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease and classical swine fever, Roeder said. Roeder said he wouldn’t be surprised if frozen poultry meat from Asia is entering Europe illegally. He said another worry is the trade of manure-based fertilizers and animal feed, which often contains ground up poultry parts, from infected countries. FAO is examining what role they could play in the spread of H5N1. [Late of FAO to say this; bird conservationists have been attempting to highlight potential role of poultry manure for some time.]

Vietnam, where most human infections and deaths have occurred, launched a nationwide poultry vaccination campaign last year and has intensified surveillance and public awareness. It has not detected any outbreaks in poultry for four months and no human cases have been reported since November. Its success has boosted demand for poultry as more Vietnamese shed their fears of eating infected meat. That, in turn, has fueled the smuggling. Smuggled birds typically come from large Chinese farms where high volume and low feed prices keep overall costs low. The poultry can be resold in Vietnam for up to five times more, depending on the market. For instance, older chickens that no longer lay eggs can be bought by smugglers for about 14,000 dong (88 cents) per kilogram, and can end up in markets in Hanoi and other cities.

In the Vietnamese border town of Lang Son, such birds fetch 37,000 dong (US$2.34) a kilogram _ still 10,000 dong (63 cents) cheaper per kilogram than Vietnamese-farmed chicken, said Do Van Duoc, director of the Lang Son Department of Animal Health. In Vietnam, no outbreaks have been directly linked to smuggled poultry from China. But it’s market inspector Lanh Van Nghe’s biggest fear. He leads an eight-man team responsible for stopping all Chinese poultry and eggs from entering Vietnam along a 100-kilometer (62-mile) stretch of border near the town of Dong Dang _ too few to be really effective, he says. Dirt paths, some as wide as roads, have been worn into the landscape by traffickers toting in everything from bootlegged DVDs to shoes and electronics. "Sometimes we lay our ambush until two or three in the morning," Nghe said. "Nearly a month ago, the smugglers built a cart, so they could use the railway here to transport up to eight cages of chickens. They moved the smuggled chickens for two kilometers to evade a checkpoint."