New Avian Flu Early Warning System Based on Migratory Bird Maps

NAIROBI, Kenya, November 21, 2005 (ENS) - A bird flu early warning system that can alert countries and communities to the arrival of potentially infected migratory wild birds, will be developed by an alliance of organizations led by the United Nations.

Details of the warning system were announced Sunday at the opening session of an international wildlife conference taking place in Nairobi. The system is to be developed by the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) with support and funding from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which is hosting the gathering.

Robert Hepworth, executive secretary of CMS, said, “We will, with UNEP and other partners, be treating the development of this early warning system as a matter of priority." The exact workings of the system have yet to be sorted out, and to fully realize it may take two years, Hepworth said.


CMS Executive Secretary Robert Hepworth addresses delegates Sunday at the eighth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
Both human and animal health officials have warned that the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu has the potential to trigger a global human pandemic if the virus adapts and becomes easily transmitted between humans.

The CMS Secretariat knows an early warning system is needed, said Hepworth, who acknowledged that officials will be coping with avian flu and similar infections for a long time. "We hope it will be particularly useful in developing countries which are under particular pressure to make the best use of limited resources," he said.

Experts from organizations such as Wetlands International, Birdlife International, and the International Wildlife and Game Federation are expected to take part in the new system.

Expected to cost about US$300,000, the system will be designed to alert authorities on different continents that migratory water birds are on their way. Special maps will be developed for individual countries to identify the exact locations lakes, marshes and other wetland areas where the migratory birds are likely to go.

Animal health officials hope that once they have this information, local health and environment bodies in Africa, Asia and in Latin America will be better able to prioritize their planning and response.

“Precise information on the places where migratory birds go including their resting sites and finally destinations is currently scattered across a myriad of organizations, bodies and groups," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP. "It is absolutely vital that this is brought together in a way that is useful to those dealing with the threat of this pandemic backed up by high quality, precision mapping.”


Migratory ducks, geese and other waterfowl may carry the H5N1 virus over thousands of miles. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Until recently, bird flu outbreaks mainly occurred in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and China. But in July, Russia and Kazakhstan confirmed H5N1 outbreaks in poultry and wild birds. Birds flying from Siberia have carried the virus to the Greece, Turkey and eastern Europe.

India and Bangladesh, which currently appear to be uninfected, are also considered to be at risk. Bangladesh, and to a lesser extent India, harbor large numbers of domestic ducks and are situated along one of the major migratory routes.

“There are important gaps in our scientific knowledge about flyways and migratory routes for some species," Toepfer said. "We need to urgently bridge that gap too. In doing so I believe this initiative can make a valuable contribution to the world-wide effort to deal with this threatened pandemic."

The warning system may include the issuance of advice to vulnerable groups in potential hot spot areas. Farmers may be advised to move poultry away from key wetlands so as to minimize cross-transmission with migratory birds. Hygiene advice to licensed hunters on handling harvested birds will also be offered.

Toepfer said the UNEP-CMS initiative would hold talks with other organizations who have expressed interest in the need for such a system, including the European Commission, so as to harmonize efforts and avoid duplication.


Newly installed net keeps farmed ducklings away from migratory birds on a Thai pond. (Photo courtesy UN Food and Agriculture Organization)
Because the timing of bird migrations can vary from year to year and from season to season depending on weather and climatic conditions, an efficient early warning system must feed in observations from sites throughout the world on when water birds are starting their migrations and relay this on to countries likely to receive these migratory bird populations.

News of the bird flu early warning system comes as hundreds of delegates are gathered in Nairobi for the eighth conference of the parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. Its current membership of over 90 countries is coordinated by a Secretariat based in Bonn, Germany.

This Convention ensures that participating countries protect rare species within their own national boundaries and co-operate to protect those that migrate across borders.

The Conference theme “on the move to 2010,” demonstrates the common objectives delegates share to halt or reduce global biodiversity losses by that date, as agreed by all governments at the World Summit on Sustainable Development and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) three years ago.

Migratory species, creatures that travel across frontiers and territorial waters, face an increasing range of existing and emerging threats to their survival including poaching, habitat loss and pollution up to climate change and animal diseases.

Other issues at the conference, which runs until November 25, include plans for a new agreement among 13 countries to conserve the West African elephant; a new report on threats to dolphins, porpoises and other small cetaceans and studies assessing the conservation status of African and Eurasian birds of prey.

The first award of a new 10,000 euro prize for a doctoral thesis on migratory species is being made to an American scientist, Dr. Zeb Hogan, for his work on the critically threatened giant Mekong catfish - the world’s largest freshwater fish.

Two special sessions took place over the weekend on relationships between climate change, animal diseases and migratory species. The conference will consider several species for new protection measures and conservation listings including three species of African bats, the basking shark and gorillas.


UK Environment Minister Jim Knight addresses delegates at the CMS conference in Nairobi on Sunday. (Photo courtesy ENB)
Jim Knight, the UK's first minister for both UK and international biodiversity, is in Kenya to attend the conference. On Friday, Knight visited Watamu turtle reserve, in the Mida Creek on the Kenyan coast, to see how money contributed to turtle conservation by his agency, the UK Department for The Environment, Food And Rural Affairs (DEFRA), has been spent. DEFRA has contributed £15,000 and Vodafone £4,000 to sea turtle conservation at the reserve.

Five of the world's seven species of marine turtle are found along the Kenyan coast. Their survival is threatened by too much fishing, much of it illegal, trawling, damage to their habitat and loss of their breeding areas.

The law has not been able adequately to protect the turtles or their breeding areas from uncontrolled tourism. Few local people understood or cared about the turtles, and those who did were powerless.

Watamu Turtle Watch has worked to educate and raise awareness in schools, among fishermen and at tourist facilities of the importance of turtle conservation, to raise money for conservation and to stop illegal and destructive fishing and poaching.

In June, their efforts bore fruit. Disaster threatened the Watamu and Malindi turtles when a ship carrying a cargo of plastic bags sank off the Kenyan coast. Floating in the sea, the bags posed a danger to the turtles because they look like jellyfish, a favorite food of sea turtles.

Knight learned that the local community organized a rescue and cleanup operation with 4,000 schoolchildren, some of whom walked 12 kilometers (eight miles), helping to gather the plastic from the sea and beaches.

"Like us, Kenyans, too, are learning the importance of involving the local community," Knight said. "It is they who have the most to gain or lose as a result of how their wildlife is treated, whether as a short-term resource to exploit to extinction or as a precious asset to contribute to the quality of their lives and those of their great grandchildren."