Avian flu may threaten endangered species

Posted: 22 March 2006

A far wider range of species including rare and endangered ones may be affected by highly virulent avian flu than has previously been supposed.

Experts attending the Convention on Biological Diversity conference, which began in Curitiba, Brazil on Monday, say there is growing evidence that the H5N1 virus can infect and harm big cats like leopards and tigers, small cats such as civets and other mammals like martens, weasels, badgers and otters.

There is special concern over threatened species in biodiversity 'hot spot' areas like Vietnam which are also big poultry producers.

Meanwhile, over 80 per cent of known bird species, including migratory and non migratory ones may also be at risk with members of the crow family and vultures of particular concern.

Countries with extraordinary bird biodiversity including Brazil need to be especially vigilant against illegal trade in bird species.

Bushmeat danger Over reaction to the threat, including culling wild birds and draining resting sites like wetlands, should be avoided as they will cause more harm than good.

The experts are also worried that the impact of the highly virulent virus may extend far beyond direct infection of species as countries takemeasures 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' as an alternative.

This may put new and unacceptable pressure on a wide range of wild living creatures from wild pigs up 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.

There are worries that this may trigger a rise in other human and animal infections as well as damage the prospects for other wildlife.

This may be of particular concern on islands where introduced alien species, like rats can be a major threat to breeding birds with the pestfeeding on eggs and young.

Hard lessons

Experts argue that some islands, from Hawaii and the Galapagos across to the Seychelles and Mauritius group, may need to consider bans on imports of poultry and wild birds in order to safeguard their special biodiversity.

Ahmed Djoghlaf, Exceutive Secretary of the CBD, said: "We are learning many hard lessons from the threatened pandemic. Firstly that the impact on biological diversity and on species may be far wider and more complex than might have been initially supposed".

"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," he said.

"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. If we are to realize international targets on fighting poverty by 2015 and on conserving biodiversity by 2010, we must urgently address these key links," said Mr Djoghlaf.

He said it was also vital that all the relevant bodies, conventions and international treaties worked together to avert the threat.

Way Forward

Among suggestions for dealing with the problem is increased surveillance and monitoring of wild birds and mammals in affected countries with a special focus on Asia where H5N1 has become endemic.

Other ideas include:

  • Beefing up the 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.

Source:WWF