- Authorities in Mauritania and Cape Verde are on high alert as large numbers of dead wild birds have been found and laboratories are investigating whether they died of bird flu. Most specialists however hold that the risk for an outbreak of bird flu among wild fowls in the region in this season is very low due to bird migration routes. The largest risk comes from illegally traded poultry.
It is the scale of deaths among wild birds that is causing alarm in Mauritania. A total of 450 dead birds have been collected from various locations in the country. They are mostly seabirds of different species and the deaths along most of the coast seem connected. The cadavers have been sent to specialised laboratories in France and Italy to determine whether they died of the feared H5N1 bird flu virus.
In Cape Verde, it is not the scale but concentration of dead birds that is causing concern. On the big but sparsely populated island Santo Antão, six dead herons have been found at one locality, a beach outside the main town of Porto Novo. The carcasses have been sent to a laboratory in the capital, Praia, on bird flu suspicion.
Especially in the case of Mauritania, UN agencies are on the highest alert. The UN's food and agriculture organisation, FAO, and the International Centre of Agricultural Research already have sent teams to Nouakchott to assist the Mauritanian government in the case of a bird flu outbreak. In Cape Verde, national authorities have so far tackled the situation on their own and are launching an information campaign for the poultry industry.
A possible bird flu outbreak among wild birds in the western part of West Africa is among the worst case scenarios of epidemiologists. These coasts are among the most trafficked routes for long distance migratory birds. Especially the rich wetlands of Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, The Gambia and Mauritania are key stop-over places for migrants, but also have major indigenous bird populations.
In Mauritania, it is in particular the northern Banc d'Arguin national park that is causing concern. The unique park is one of the world's richest bird paradises. Numerous local species live in these ecologically rich salt marshes and twice a year, millions of migratory birds stop over to find food and rest on their trek between Europe and Africa.
An outbreak of bird flu in Banc d'Arguin would be a disaster for several reasons. First of all, bird populations, including threatened species, would be decimated at this unique site, causing lasting ecological unbalances. Secondly, an outbreak here would make it impossible to hinder further spread as migratory birds could airlift the virus to all of Africa and Europe. Due to different mortality rates and incubation periods among bird species, specialists do not rule out such a scenario.
The big question is however how bird flu could possibly reach local populations of wild birds in western West Africa. Specialists agree that currently, an outbreak among domesticated poultry is much more likely in that region. It is simply seen as unlikely that wild birds in Mauritania and Cape Verde could be infected at this time.
Migration routes to Mauritania, Senegal and Cape Verde at this time of year are from the south and northwards to Europe. Birds are arriving from wintering grounds from West, Central and Southern Africa - mostly coastal sites. In none of these regions, wild birds have been known to have infected by the disease. Not even in Nigeria and Niger, wild birds are known to be affected. The outbreak is among domestic poultry.
An outbreak among wild birds in the region had been much more likely in the next northern autumn, when birds stop over after leaving their breeding places in Europe, heading southwards. In Europe, indeed, the bird flu outbreak has been concentrated in wild bird populations, and most local outbreaks are put in connection with minor bird migrations. But there are no species heading southwards from Europe for at least the next six months.
Specialists expect the bird flu to spread further among domestic poultry in Africa, as has already been the case in Nigeria, Egypt and Niger. FAO agrees with governments in the three countries, who claim that the H5N1 virus must have entered the country with illegally traded poultry. In Nigeria, authorities expect smuggling of poultry from China or Turkey, two affected countries that both are known to have a large black market of poultry.
In Niger, the virus reached two locations close to the long and permeable border with Nigeria despite national efforts to halt the trans-border poultry trade. There are simply not enough resources to control the long border. This is the scenario experts from 'BirdLife' and FAO expect to see more times. It not effectively stopped in Niger and Nigeria, the virus will slowly cross into other West African countries, affecting the poultry industry.
Also West African governments stick to this theory. Government leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are preparing for an extraordinary summit in Dakar within short to discuss coordinated regional measures to stop the virus from spreading. The trans-border trade of poultry is at the centre of attention.
Ahead of the summit, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has urged donor nations to contribute generously to assist West Africa in controlling the spread of the virus before it reaches wild birds in the protected wetlands of the region. President Wade said it was the responsibility of all humanity to protect these parks.
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