Avian Flu Threat to Biological Diversity
Media Release from the United Nations Environment Programme
March 23, 2006
Experts at Convention on Biological Diversity Meeting Call for More Action to Curb Rise in
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 alternative.
Roosters for sale in Indonesia. Photo by R. Butler
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 world’s
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 includes 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 H5N1.
The Way Forward
A raft of suggestions and recommendations have emerged from the brainstorming ranging from
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
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.
This is a modified news release from the UN.