Global perspective Human stories

UN-backed body ‘disappointed’ by European action on wild bird trade

UN-backed body ‘disappointed’ by European action on wild bird trade

An indefinite European Union (EU) ban on wild bird imports, adopted to prevent the spread of bird flu to humans, risks creating black markets by ending a legal and tightly managed trade and undermining poor African communities who depend on it, according to a United Nations-backed body dealing with trade in endangered species.

Moreover, the ban does not include global trade in live domestic poultry – a major reservoir for the H5N1 flu virus – which involves some 750 million birds a year, the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) noted in a statement voicing its “disappointment” at the step.

“We understand the need to combat the threat of avian influenza, but the definitive and inflexible nature of the decision appears disproportionate and risks to hamper conservation efforts in developing countries by depriving them and poor local communities of the benefits of wildlife for their livelihoods,” CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers said.

“It is disappointing that in this case no account appears to have been taken of the environmental impact of this measure,” he added. “The risk is that it may undermine attempts to render the use of wild birds sustainable in developing countries. Instead, the emphasis should be on strictly regulated trade.”

The global trade in wild birds, already carefully regulated by CITES’ 169 Member States, has declined from an estimated 7.5 million birds a year in 1975, when the treaty came into effect, to around 1.5 million today, consisting mostly of West African finches, which are naturally abundant in their countries of origin.

The EU measure risks driving the market underground as well as removing the economic incentives for impoverished communities to protect bird habitats.

In 2005, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned against culling wild birds in areas affected by bird flu, saying this could distract attention from the campaign to contain the disease among poultry in the battle against the virus that could spark a potentially lethal human pandemic.

Ever since the first human case of H5N1, linked to widespread poultry outbreaks in Viet Nam and Thailand, was reported in January 2004, UN health officials have warned that the virus could evolve into a human pandemic if it mutates into a form which could transmit easily between people.

The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920 is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide. Overall, there have been 265 reported human H5N1 cases, 159 of them fatal. More than 200 million birds have died worldwide from either the virus or preventive culling.