The deadly bird flu virus may pose a fresh threat to endangered mammal species including big cats such as tigers and leopards, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said on Wednesday March 22.
UNEP said it was especially concerned about countries like Vietnam, which is home to both a rich variety of wild species and a large poultry industry that has been hit by avian flu outbreaks.
“A far wider range of species, including rare and endangered ones, may be affected by highly virulent avian flu than has previously been supposed,” UNEP said in a statement.
It said experts at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference in Brazil said “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.”
Since late 2003, the H5N1 strain of avian flu has killed more than 100 people and in recent weeks has spread with alarming speed into Africa, Europe and Asia.
It has killed or led to the culling of some 200 million birds globally. It also has been detected in a marten, a weasel-like mammal, in Germany, and there have been reported infections in cats in Germany and a dog in Azerbaijan.
In December 2003, two tigers and two leopards, fed on fresh chicken carcasses, died unexpectedly at a zoo in Thailand. Subsequent investigation identified H5N1 in tissue samples.
UNEP said avian flu could also pose an indirect threat to rare animals if concerns about chicken meat or poultry culls forced poor people in rural areas to turn to wildlife for their protein.
“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,” it said.
“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.”
But UNEP said drastic measures, such as culling wild birds or draining wetlands, had to be avoided.
UNEP said wild bird species that appeared at special risk from the virus include members of the crow and vulture families.
Bird flu could have devastating consequences on island habitats, which tend to be especially fragile because of their limited size and separation from other ecosystems.
Their isolation also means they often harbour species found nowhere else, making them “biologically valuable.”
UNEP said 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.
Some critics say bird flu may well be a product of a shrinking gene pool in domestic livestock caused by modern farming methods.
“… 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,” Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the CBD, was quoted as saying.