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Guidelines for Reducing Avian Influenza Risks at Wetlands of Importance for Waterbirds

Against the background of the rapid emergence and spread of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N1 since 2003, concern has been raised over implications for the conservation of wild birds in addition to the more widely recognized risks to the poultry industry and human health. Recognizing potential disease risks to concentrations of globally threatened waterbirds at important wetlands such as Poyang Lake in China, the UNEP/GEF Siberian Crane Wetland Project initiated the development of guidelines to assist wetland site managers to control risks of HPAI H5N1transmission at individual sites. The guidelines were later included as part of the Ramsar Convention’s Resolution X.21 Guidance on responding to the continued spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza.

Waterbirds at Poyang Lake, China

Siberian Cranes, Tundra Swans, Swan Geese and other waterbirds feeding together at Poyang Lake in China. Photo by Crawford Prentice

Context – the Threat Posed by Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N1

The UNEP/GEF Siberian Crane Wetland Project (SCWP) was designed to address the need for concerted action to conserve networks of flyway wetlands along the migration routes of the Siberian Crane in East and West/Central Asia, in the face of significant loss and degradation of wetland resources and specific threats to key sites. During the course of project implementation, a new threat arose – the outbreak and spread of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) subtype H5N1 across Eurasia and into Africa.

The HPAI H5N1 outbreak began in December 2003 in Hong Kong and South Korea, and subsequently spread to a number of SE Asian countries. It only attracted major global attention in 2005, when the disease started a westward spread towards Central and Western Asia, Europe and Africa. As of March 2006, HPAI H5N1 outbreaks had been recorded in all four SCWP project countries, with cases involving wild birds in China, Iran and Russia. By December 2009, HPAI H5N1 outbreaks had occurred in 62 countries/territories in Asia, Europe and Africa.  Although effective control measures for outbreaks in poultry have been undertaken in several countries, H5N1 HPAI remains entrenched in poultry in parts of Asia and Africa, and outbreaks are still likely to be under-estimated and under-reported in many countries and regions (FAO: http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/ak723e/ak723e00.pdf).

The significance of the HPAI H5N1 outbreak for this project is based on the potential threat to wild bird populations, especially in the case of globally endangered species that congregate in locations where they could contract the disease. From this perspective, the risk posed to Siberian Cranes must be seen as significant, especially as c.99% of the world population over-winters at Poyang Lake in China, together with significant proportions of other globally threatened waterbird populations including the White-naped Crane, Hooded Crane, Oriental White Stork and Swan Goose.

Duck trapper at Fereydoon Kenar, Iran

A duck-trapper at Fereydoon Kenar in Iran, with his trained captive ducks used to decoy wild birds into traps constructed at damgahs – shallow flooded areas designed for duck-trapping. Photo by Crawford Prentice

Although it appears that there have been no officially reported outbreaks of HPAI H5N1 at Poyang Lake, several thousand waterbirds died during an outbreak at Qinghai Lake in May 2005. HPAI was also responsible for the deaths of at least 153 Whooper Swans at Anzali Wildlife Sanctuary in Gilan Province of Iran in February 2006, and the Iranian Government has categorized wetlands in Gilan and Mazandaran as very high risk for HPAI. Risks of transmission are high in parts of China and Iran due the close proximity of domestic and wild birds. At Fereydoon Kenar in Iran, the migratory waterbirds winter in flooded rice fields where domestic ducks are used to lure and trap wild waterfowl.

The project’s response has been to monitor the situation, coordinate with the CMS Scientific Task Force on Avian Influenza (see www.aiweb.info), develop guidelines for reducing HPAI risks at sites, facilitate cooperation of National Executing Agencies with international bodies and troubleshoot when necessary.

Development of the Guidelines

The guidelines were produced under the framework of the SCWP, in response to international concern over the threat that HPAI H5N1 poses to migratory waterbird populations. Their development coincided with the preparation of the Ramsar Convention’s Resolution X.21 – Guidance on responding to the continued spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza. Consequently, they were incorporated into the Annex of the Resolution (as Section 2 - Guidelines for reducing avian influenza risks at Ramsar sites and other wetlands of importance to waterbirds), which was approved at the 10th Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties to the Convention on Wetlands at Changwon, Republic of Korea in November 2008. The Annex to the Resolution also includes the following: Section 1 - Guidance related to preparing for and responding to outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza, especially at wetlands (including an extensive directory of literature); Section 3 - Recommended ornithological information to be collected during surveillance programmes or field assessment of wild bird mortality events, especially at wetlands; and Section 4 - Ornithological expert panels. The full text of the Resolution can be downloaded at the Ramsar Convention’s website (download here).

The guidelines are intended to reduce the potential for outbreaks of HPAI H5N1 at wetlands of importance for migratory waterbirds by proposing a range of measures that can be taken by site managers. Most of these measures should be systematically planned on the basis of a risk assessment for the site, and within the context of site management plans and outbreak response plans. A holistic and participatory approach to the risk assessment and plans is advocated in order to improve their effectiveness. The guidelines have been kept concise and relatively simple to facilitate their use in the widely varied circumstances of wetland protected areas in Asia.


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