Avian Flu May Prove Big Threat to Biological Diversity


Curitiba, 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 (CBD) conference
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.

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 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’ as an

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 pest
feeding on eggs and young.

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.

These include the conventions on migratory species and international trade
in endangered species, the wetlands agreement Ramsar and organizations
like the UN Environment Programme, the World Health Organization and the
Food and Agriculture Organization.

The findings, including a wide range of suggestions and recommendations
from some of the worlds leading animal health, public policy, law and
conservation biology, are expected to be raised with governments at the 8th
Conference of the Parties of the CBD taking place in Curitiba, Brazil.

Species at Risk
The experts, including a team from the Centre for Ecology, Evolution and
Conservation Wildlife Disease Group at the University of East Anglia in the
UK, estimate that 13 orders of birds amounting to well over 80 per cent of
all bird species may be at risk from H5N1.

These include storks, herons, parakeets, emus, owls, eagles, kites and
vultures as well as the largest avian order, the Passeriformes.

This order, which contains 6,000 of the total 9,917 avian species, include
scavengers like crows.

Meanwhile some 54 globally threatened or near threatened species are at
risk from exposure including 80 per cent of sea and fish eagle species.

Mammals at risk may include domestic rabbits, primates, viverrids which
include civets and genets, mustelids like polecats, stoats, weasels and
wolverines and felids which include big cats.

The experts suspect that the highly refined olfactory systems of some
mammals may make them particularly susceptible to infection by viruses like