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RIA Novosti, 27 марта 2007 г.

Has Russia declared war on birds?


Many migratory birds are already heading for their summer homes in Russia.

By the eternal laws of nature, birds are flying in large numbers to their nesting-places for the sake of raising a new generation.

Today, however, few people romanticize the spring return of birds because they have been discredited by the rise of avian flu.

Though ornithologists say the "guilt" of birds has not been proven, fears of a new "plague" seem to be overriding common sense. People are ready to declare a real war on wild birds. Why not? A machine-gun was once designed in the United States especially to shoot migratory passenger pigeons, and in 1899 this species of bird was successfully exterminated.

As spring arrives, there are more and more calls from various levels of Russian society to exterminate migratory birds. Alexey Zimenko, the director of the Biodiversity Conservation Center, describes such a method of preventing avian flu as "shameful, absurd and unacceptable." First, it would pose a serious threat to endangered species. Second, according to Zimenko, the massive shooting of birds would only encourage an epidemic because killed and wounded birds spread the infection. Third, such measures are very expensive: for example, the work of scare-away teams in the Novosibirsk Region alone costs 300 million rubles a year.

Flocks of birds fly mostly at night, and during the day they stop at their customary migratory places, often near water. It is here that they should be targeted, according to the recommendations. In the instructions it sent to all regional committees, the Russian Agency for Health and Consumer Rights underlines: "Take measures to prevent the nesting of migratory birds near reservoirs and at places of possible contact with poultry." The local authorities will decide which methods to use.

The same is recommended in a letter from the Russian Veterinary Supervision Agency to local authorities: "In population centers situated near the shores of reservoirs where migratory birds have nesting-places, organize measures to scare away birds to a distance of 3 to 10 kilometers from the population centers." The letter contains an important piece of advice: "use all acoustic and other methods." The latter is a clear reference to firearms.

"Besides the fact that the shooting of birds is inhumane and anti-environmental, it is also pointless. Birds are very mobile, and there are so many of them that you cannot exterminate them even if you give every Russian a gun," says Yevgeny Kuznetsov, a leading expert at the Center for the Protection of Wild Animals' Health.

He believes that any attempt to scare away, not to mention shoot, wild birds will only force them to search for new places to feed, rest and nest, meaning they will fly to unusual places.

The problem of avian flu is so serious that it has become the focus of attention not only of scientists and experts but political parties as well. The ruling United Russia party has held a conference on the matter. "Avian flu has existed for millions of years. At present, no type of animal flu is dangerous for humans," Professor Yevgeny Voronin, the rector of the Skryabin Moscow Veterinary and Biotechnology Academy, told the conference. "I can drink a medicine bottle of the H5N1 virus and nothing will happen to me. Students at our academy study virology and work with the live avian flu virus. I have never heard that anyone has suffered."

The tone of another speaker, Academician Dmitry Lvov, the director of the Ivanovsky Virology Research Institute, was different. He believes the possibility of a pandemic on all continents is real. According to Lvov, the potential of the H5N1 virus is greater than that of the Spanish influenza that claimed the lives of 50 million people at the beginning of the 20th century. "For the deadly virus to spread from human to human, only two biochemical changes are needed. If this happens, it will be a disaster," he warned.

The scientist added that it was impossible to counter the process of evolution in ecosystems. "It is impossible to prevent a pandemic or an epizootic [an epidemic affecting animals] because it is a disaster like a hurricane or an earthquake. But it is possible and necessary to reduce the possible effects of such disasters through forecasting and prevention," he stressed. Among the obligatory steps to be taken against avian flu, he named the vaccination of household poultry, reliable protection measures to isolate poultry farms, the vaccination of poultry farm personnel, and wide-ranging disinfection measures.

Tatyana Sinitsyna

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