Falcons, chickens, & avian flu
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2006:
Falconing, along with factory farming, cockfighting,
bird-shooting, wild bird trafficking, and keeping caged songbirds,
has emerged as a factor in the increasingly rapid global spread of
the deadly H5N1 avian influenza.
As the March 2006 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE went to press, 92
humans in seven nations had died from H5N1. More than 30 nations had
experienced H5N1 outbreaks since 2003, 14 of them since February 1,
2006. Hit, in chronological order, were Iraq, Nigeria,
Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Slovenia, Iran, Austria,
Germany, Egypt, India, France, and Hungary.
More than 200 million domestic fowl have been killed in
mostly futile efforts to contain H5N1, according to the United
Nations Food & Agriculture Organization–almost entirely because of
the persistence of practices long opposed by the humane community.
Falconing became implicated when five trained hunting birds
died from H5N1 at a veterinary clinic in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Saudi agriculture ministry officials confiscated and killed 37
falcons who were kept at the clinic.
“The virus might have been introduced by illegally imported
falcons from China and Mongolia early in the season,” the moderators
of the International Society for Infectious Diseases posted to the
society’s ProMED online bulletin board.
ProMED zoonotic disease moderator Arnon Shimshony called for
“enhancing the alertness of authorities responsible for control of
international trade in avians, with special attention to captive
“Earlier H5N1 incidents related to such trade have been
recorded in Taiwan, Belgium, the U.K., and probably elsewhere,”
reminded Shimshony, who is a member of the Koret School of
Veterinary Medicine faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“The report of H5N1 from falcons in Saudi Arabia and their
possible infection by smuggled falcons is especially notable when
coupled with an earlier incident involving H5N1-infected eagles who
were smuggled from Thailand to Belgium,” said Joseph P. Dudley,
Ph.D., chief scientist for the EAI Corporation, a Virginia-based
private security firm.
“U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service investigations have shown that
there is a long-standing and well-established illegal global trade in
falcons and other raptors, and that as long ago as 1984, individual
falcons caught from the wild could command prices of $10,000 to
$50,000 from buyers in Europe and the Middle East,” Dudley
continued. “Nonprofit organizations have estimated that the illicit
trade in falcons from Central Asia to the Middle East and Gulf states
may involve as many as 14,000 or more birds annually, and say that
individual falcons of the most sought-after species can bring prices
of $500,000 or higher. News reports from October 2004 said that
Russian police had intercepted and confiscated a consignment of 127
Saker falcons worth an estimated $4.5 million from a commercial
aircraft at a Russian military air base in Kyrgyzstan.”
Agreed World Birdwatch editor Richard Thomas, “There is a
lot of smuggling of Sakers from Central Asia to the Middle East, and
what are they likely to be fed? I seem to recall that the
H5N1-infected mountain hawk-eagles who were smuggled from Thailand to
Belgium were believed to have been fed infected chicken before the
Qatar, neighboring Saudi Arabia, banned traffic in falcons
on February 1. Other nations paid little attention to falconing–but
falconing is practicing throughout Central Asia and the Middle East,
and may be the missing link that enabled the dominant strain of H5N1
to move laterally across the region to Europe, without spreading to
the northern and southern reaches of migratory bird routes.
In terms of numbers of birds involved, routine commerce in
poultry dwarfs all other possible H5N1 vectors.
Nigeria banned poultry from residential areas in Lagos, the
capital city, on February 16, and banned interstate poultry
movements on February 21, after H5N1 appeared in six of the 36
Nigerian states within less than a week.
The Nigerian outbreak, unlike European outbreaks which might
have been transmitted by migratory birds, almost certainly was
caused by poultry trading.
“I would never rule out wild birds,” Wildlife Conservation
Society veterinary epidemiologist William B. Karesh told Washington
Post staff writer David Brown. “But I think we have to look at the
most probable routes. The most probable would be poultry. “
“There is no question that migratory birds are playing a
role, but they are not the main players,” agreed ecologist Peter
Marra of the Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo. Marra told
Brown that more attention should be given to the movements of poultry
and birds in the pet trade, because “That is where you can actually
do something about it.”
“We think someone may have imported or smuggled in
contaminated birds,” Nigerian agriculture minister Adamu Bello told
the Lagos Guardian.
Noted Brown, “China, Nigeria and the United Nations Food &
Agricultural Organization signed a $22.7 million agreement in March
2003 to have 520 Chinese agriculture experts, including poultry
technicians, help Nigerian farmers. Nigeria also imported live
birds from China until January 2004, when the trade was banned due
to H5N1 outbreaks in Asia.”
Bello acknowledged at a news conference that despite the ban,
“Birds come every day from China and Turkey.”
#1 migratory species
A similar situation contributed to the resurgence of H5N1 in
Indonesia, now second only to Vietnam in numbers of human victims.
As of February 22, 2006, H5N1 had hit 161 communities in 26
of the 33 Indonesian provinces, Agriculture Ministry director of
health Syamsul Bachri said. Indonesia killed 16.2 million chickens
in 2003, he added, or about 9% of the national flock, without
lastingly containing H5N1.
“Almost no region in West Java is free from H5N1,” Fatimah
Resmiati of the West Java health office told the Jakarta Post,
blaming the fast spread of the virus on poor control of the live
“Globalization has turned the chicken into the world’s number
one migratory bird species,” said BirdLife International director of
science Leon Bennun. “Movements of chickens around the world take
place 365 days a year, unlike the seasonal migrations of wild
birds,” Bennun noted.
However, H5N1 rapidly crossed several regions where there is little
legal commerce in poultry.
“While the overt and covert movements of commercial poultry
clearly carry risks,” reminded ProMED moderator Martin Hugh Jones,
“we should not forget gladiatorial activities. Cockfighting was the
background to the Newcastle disease epidemics in the U.S. Southwest
in 2002-2003,” as well as a key factor in spreading H5N1 throughout
Southeast Asia in 2003-2004.
Paraphrasing Bahrain SPCA pres ident Dr Khalil Rajab,
Geoffrey Bew of the Gulf Daily News reported on February 13 that
“Dogs and cockerels are being brought to Bahrain from Southeast Asia
to take part in illegal fights, thought to be coming across the King
Fahad Causeway from Saudi Arabia or slipped past customs officers at
Bahrain International Airport.”
Rajab also mentioned illegal commerce in Southeast Asian birds as pets.
Daniel Foggo and Matthew Campbell of The Times of London on January
22 disclosed that although cockfighting was banned in Britain in
1835, “Villages in northern France where cockfighting is still
permitted have become a magnet for day-tripping British devotees of
the illegal bloodsport,” an obvious potential vector for H5N1 now
that infected birds have been found in that part of France.
H5N1 reappeared in Malaysia in early February for the first
time since 2004. Selangor and Federal Territory Poultry Traders
Association adviser Dr Lee Chong Meng suggested that the outbreak,
in Gombak, might have resulted from villagers smuggling in fighting
cocks from Thailand–which caused the last known outbreak, in Kota