Dr Nial Moores, Birds Korea

In July, a statement on High Pathogenicity Avian Infuenza or HPAI (long called “Poultry Flu” by Birds Korea) was released by the Scientific Task Force on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds, co-convened under the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The statement aims to inform stakeholders in governments, disease control, wildlife management, site management, conservation and poultry sectors about HPAI viruses in wild birds and appropriate responses.

Among key messages:

  • “H5N1 high pathogenicity avian influenza (HPAI) (is) currently causing unparalleled mortality of wild birds and mammals worldwide with threats to population levels for some species already under multiple anthropogenic pressures. Before 2005 when HPAI viruses spilled significantly from poultry into wild birds, HPAI in free-ranging wildlife was highly unusual. Now a new phase in the epidemiology of HPAI in wild birds has been entered and this better adapted virus is expected to continue to spread and cause further negative conservation impacts”;
  • “Governments are encouraged to see HPAI as a conservation issue so environmental sections of government need to take active responsibility for the wildlife aspects of the disease, plan accordingly and follow HPAI obligations including those of the multilateral environmental agreements”;
  • “To date surveillance has typically sought to evaluate risk to the poultry sector. Biodiversity conservation needs to be an aim of surveillance efforts”;
  • “Reducing pressures on the wider environment and wild birds will improve resilience to disease”;
  • “Wild birds are both victims and vectors of a virus originating from within a poultry setting… Reassessment of the nature and sustainability of poultry production systems is required”;
  • “There is no benefit to be gained in attempting to control the virus in wild birds through culling or habitat destruction. Spraying of birds or the environment with disinfectant is considered potentially counter-productive, harmful to the environment and not effective from a disease control perspective”;
  • There should be, “no consideration of killing of wild birds, spraying toxic products or negatively affecting wetlands and other habitats as disease control measures. For poultry disease control, focussing attention on wild birds, to the exclusion of other potential routes of transmission, can misdirect critical resources away from effective disease control and result in continued spread among poultry populations and economic losses to farmers and national income.”

Here in the ROK, at least until last winter, there was an unbroken and long history of media and government bodies blaming outbreaks of HPAI on wild birds, rather than linking outbreaks more plausibly to the movement of poultry and poultry products, or to the spreading of animal manure and farm-waste in rice-fields used by waterbirds. There is also a long history of spraying wild birds (including Baikal Teal from helicopters) and bird habitats with disinfectant. Much time and money has been wasted, and now, after almost two decades, HPAI has crossed a new threshold to become persistent in wild bird populations across much of the world. In the winter of 2022/ 2023, large numbers of cranes succumbed to the virus in Japan and then in the ROK; and concerns over further spread of the virus led to the closure of several “vulture restaurants”.

During the Hwaseong Wetlands Project in 2020 and 2021, we often saw trucks spraying disinfectant on to roadside vegetation and into adjacent wetlands…a disturbingly common sight at several key waterbird habitats in the ROK.

We have not yet suffered the intensity of HPAI outbreaks experienced in parts of Europe and perhaps South America. There is no doubt, however, that HPAI now poses a major and chronic threat to birdlife in Korea, as elsewhere across the world. In our opinion, the only way to stop outbreaks of HPAI and similar agricultural diseases – before they become even more deadly to people – will be to re-construct the poultry industry. This requires increasing “farm” biosecurity, including by reducing the density of farms and farmed animals, with an increased concern for animal welfare; stopping international trade of poultry (including eggs); and encouraging a shift in human diets, away from the mass production and consumption of dairy products and farmed animals toward vegetarianism and veganism. Such a shift would be much better for human health; for birds and other animal species; and for the climate too, of course.

For the full expert report please see here


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