Bird flu may prove big threat to biological diversity – UN environment agency

22 March 2006 – A far wider range of species, some of them rare and endangered, may be affected by highly virulent avian flu than has previously been supposed, ranging from big cats like leopards and tigers to other mammals like martens, weasels and badgers to 80 per cent of all bird species, the United Nations environmental agency warned today.

“We are learning many hard lessons from the threatened pandemic,” the head of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which is administered by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), told experts attending a CBD conference in Curitiba, Brazil, calling for increased surveillance and vaccination and beefed-up training.

“Firstly, that the impact on biological diversity and on species may be far wider and more complex than might have been initially supposed,” CBD Executive Secretary Ahmed Djoghlaf said, noting that the knock-on effect could lead to a loss of predators, an explosion of pests like rats and mice and a consequent rise in human and animal diseases.

“Secondly, that it is in many ways a threat of our own making. For example, reduced genetic diversity in domestic animals like poultry in favour of a ‘monoculture’ in the last 50 years has resulted in a reduction of resistance to many diseases.

“There is also growing evidence that a healthy environment can act as a buffer against old and the emergence of new diseases whereas a degraded one favours the spread of infections,” he added, calling for an urgent study of “these key links.”

The experts voiced special concern over threatened species in biodiversity “hot spot” areas like Viet Nam which are also big poultry producers, one of the disease’s main vectors. Over 80 per cent of known bird species, both migratory and non-migratory, may also be at risk, with members of the crow family and vultures of particular concern.

Countries with extraordinary bird biodiversity like Brazil need to be especially vigilant against illegal trade in bird species, they said, but warned that over-reaction, including culling wild birds and draining resting sites like wetlands, should be avoided as they will cause more harm than good.

Some islands, from Hawaii and the Galapagos to the Seychelles and Mauritius may need to consider bans on imports of poultry and wild birds in order to safeguard their special biodiversity.

The experts expressed concern that the impact of the highly virulent H5N1 virus may extend far beyond direct infection of species as countries take measures to combat the problem. Culling of poultry, especially in developing countries where chicken is a key source of protein, may lead to local people turning to “bushmeat.”

This may put new and unacceptable pressure on a wide range of wild living creatures from wild pigs to endangered species like chimpanzees, gorillas and other great apes. Meanwhile, the loss of predators from some habitats, victims of the infection, could trigger an explosion of pests like mice and rats, which in turn may trigger a rise in other human and animal diseases as well as damage the prospects for other wildlife.

Recommendations from brainstorming sessions at the conference include:

  • Increased surveillance and monitoring of wild birds and mammals in affected countries with a special focus on Asia where H5N1 has become endemic.
  • Beefed up training of wildlife and veterinary staff in developing countries so they can better deal with current and future infections.
  • Increased surveillance and possibly tougher penalties for illegal traders in wild birds and mammals.
  • Vaccination of rare species at risk both in the wild and in zoos.
  • Realistic compensation for owners of culled poultry in poor countries, possibly through increases in overseas development aid.

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