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H5N1 and the Wild Bird Trade
A Statement by the Species Survival Network

Summary: Wildlife groups rebut claims that EU bird moratorium adopted to head off bird flu will impair bird conservation efforts or spur increased smuggling.

About the Species Survival Network

The Species Survival Network (“SSN”) is a global coalition of more than eighty organizations dedicated to ensuring that the international trade in wildlife is conducted legally, humanely and only when evidence demonstrates that survival of the species and their role in the ecosystems in which they occur will not be detrimentally affected by trade. SSN member organizations are active in wildlife conservation efforts in dozens of countries on every inhabited continent. In recent years, many SSN members have grown increasingly concerned with the emerging linkages between wildlife trade and the spread of human and animal diseases. Although SSN as an organization does not generally make statements on public health matters, recent events related to highly pathogenic avian influenza warrant an exception.

Background: Bird Imports and H5N1 Bird Flu

H5N1 avian influenza is a highly pathogenic flu virus that has proven deadly to humans. Although this strain of the flu virus may have originated in wild waterfowl, it has proved to be transmissible to a wide array of bird species, including eagles, falcons, songbirds and parrots. Some birds carry the disease without obvious symptoms, making detection difficult. There are other H5 stains of the flu virus that have occurred elsewhere that are of little risk to birds, and pose no risk to people, but have been widely reported by the media. During the past several months, H5N1 has been detected in caged and captive birds of several species, including species imported into the European Union for use in falconry or as pets. In the most recent such incident, H5N1 was found to have killed dozens of songbirds imported into the United Kingdom from a country reputedly free of the disease. The outbreak was discovered by accident, apparently when a valuable parrot may also have died at a quarantine facility where the songbirds were housed. There was some confusion about this as the samples tested from the various species were accidentally mixed. Following positive identification of H5N1 at this facility, the European Commission imposed a precautionary moratorium on commercial imports of captive live birds into the European Union.

On 28 October 2005, in response to this moratorium, the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (“CITES”) issued a press statement expressing its concern that the import prohibition would remain in place after the health crisis had passed (http://www.cites.org/eng/news/press_release.shtml). The Secretariat’s advisory argued that any prohibition would impair conservation efforts for the world’s wild birds. On 20 November 2005, the Secretariat went further, asserting to reporters that adopting a bird import moratorium could actually increase the risks of disease introduction, thus threatening human health. The following day, the wildlife trade monitoring organization TRAFFIC made a similar pronouncement. Each of these statements has been widely circulated in the press. Because they seem clearly intended to influence international policy in a way that may prove detrimental to human health and commercial endeavor, SSN believes it important that certain factual errors and unproven assumptions in these statements be addressed.

Put simply, there is no evidence that the European Union moratorium on bird imports will either harm wild bird populations or spur increased smuggling of potentially diseased birds. Such arguments should not be used to justify premature termination of the ban. In fact, SSN strongly believes the European Union’s action will benefit both human health and the conservation of wild birds.

SSN’s Response

SSN believes the European Commission’s decision to adopt a moratorium on bird imports during the current avian influenza outbreak is a reasonable precautionary measure in light of the potentially significant risks associated with the spread of H5N1 and the demonstrated potential of live caged birds of various species to move the disease among countries and continents. The bird trade provides an ideal environment for the spread of diseases because stress and the crowding prior to and during transport encourage the expression and transmission of infectious diseases. As recent experience in the United Kingdom demonstrated, species from different countries are commonly mixed during trade or quarantining, creating the risk that birds originating in disease-free countries or regions may become infected before ultimately entering the market.

Indeed, neither the Secretariat nor TRAFFIC dispute that the importation of wild-caught birds increases the risk of introducing potentially harmful diseases such as avian influenza. Nor could they easily do so. Instead, these organizations argue that an extended ban on wild bird imports may have unintended consequences both for wild bird conservation and for human health by removing economic incentives to conserve wild birds and encouraging increased poaching. These arguments cannot withstand close scrutiny.

1. “The reality is that the international trade in orange-winged parrots and the 1,700 other species of wild birds regulated by CITES is well managed and subject to robust and transparent monitoring for sustainability.” –CITES Secretariat

FACT: The CITES treaty and its associated resolutions do provide a robust framework for monitoring international trade in wildlife, but it is not accurate to suggest that their application in practice has made the international trade in wild birds either well-managed or sustainable.

Though SSN strongly supports CITES and other multilateral conservation efforts, in practice, CITES has proved insufficient to protect many bird species. The scientific evidence necessary to make a non-detriment finding—that is, a finding, required under CITES, that export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species—is poor or non-existent for most birds species in trade. In the case of the example chosen by the Secretariat, the orange-winged Amazon parrot (Amazona amazonica) continues to be traded despite the absence of any evidence that capture and trade is not harming wild populations. The orange-winged Amazon parrot is not alone. More than 40,000 wild-caught Senegal parrots (Poicephalus senegalus) enter international trade each year even though there are no scientific assessments of the status of wild populations of this species.

Contrary to the Secretariat’s claim that international trade is “well managed,” trade in most CITES-listed bird species has not been shown to be biologically sustainable. The scientific basis for non-detriment findings involving the export of most species of wild birds is, therefore, questionable. It is precisely for this reason that the CITES Parties have established a Review of Species in Significant Trade, designed to examine heavily-traded species for the reasons why non-detriment findings do not seem to result in sustainable levels of trade. If the statement made by the Secretariat were true, there would be no need for this process—one of the most extensive and broadly-supported within CITES—to exist.

The process by which exporting countries make non-detriment findings is not transparent or accessible to the public, making independent assessments of the validity of non-detriment findings difficult if not impossible. Likewise, the non-detriment findings of importing countries, where required, such as in the European Union, also lack transparency and are made without public consultation.

2. “When reporting on these facts, a number of press articles have quoted claims that the international trade has resulted in wild birds being “traded almost to extinction” and that much of the trade is illegal.” --CITES Secretariat

FACT: Many species of tropical birds are experiencing population declines due to capture for legal and illegal trade. Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) was captured and traded to extinction in the wild, with the last wild bird reported missing in October 2000 (Juniper 2002). Other bird species that have been captured and traded to the point of endangerment include:

  • The Endangered (IUCN 2004) yellow-headed Amazon parrot (Amazona ochrocephala oratrix), listed in CITES Appendix I in 2003, has suffered enormously from trade pressures and habitat loss throughout its Mexican range, and has undergone one of the most dramatic population declines of any bird in the Americas (IUCN 1996).
  • The Critically Endangered (IUCN 2004) lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea), included in CITES Appendix I in 2005, has suffered an extremely rapid population decline owing to entirely unsustainable trapping for trade as household pets (IUCN 2000).
  • The Critically Endangered (IUCN 2004) Philippine cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia), included in CITES Appendix I in 1992, has suffered an extremely rapid population reduction over the last 45 years owing to extensive loss of its lowland habitats and trapping for the cage-bird trade (IUCN 2000). According to Birdlife International (2003) “...[H]uge numbers were trapped in recent decades, and its populations have plunged towards extinction in the wild... Nestling cockatoos collected have a mortality rate of 50%”.
  • The Endangered Red Siskin (Carduelis cucullata) “is undergoing a very rapid population decline as a result of trapping for the cage-bird trade” (IUCN 2004).
  • One of the most commonly traded bird species, the grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus), has significantly declined in parts of its range due to capture for international trade and continues to be subjected to overexploitation and laundering of illegally captured birds into the legal trade. Despite scientific research on the grey parrot in Guinea, commissioned by the CITES Secretariat, that describes the species there as seriously threatened by the combination of harvesting and habitat loss (Clemmons 2003), and recommending to suspend trade, CITES has yet to take action and demonstrably unsustainable exports continue.

In addition to the legal trade, significant illegal trade in wild birds continues in many parts of the world (e.g. Shepherd et al., 2004). The legal trade provides a cover for the laundering of illegally captured birds into the international market.

3. “In addition, the temporary blanket ban on imports for commercial purposes will require intensified border controls, and since such measures are known to drive part of the trade underground, this may well cause birds to be imported without going through quarantine.” --CITES Secretariat

FACT: The Secretariat’s claim that trade bans ‘drive part of the trade underground’ is unsubstantiated and refutable. Researchers have demonstrated that when the United States enacted the Wild Bird Conservation Act, which banned the import of wild parrots for pets into the United States, there was a significant decline in nest poaching throughout the Americas (Wright et al., 2001); this research also demonstrated a strong positive correlation between the existence of legal markets for parrots and levels of illegal trade. Legal trade provides cover for illegal trade. Prohibitions on legal trade reduce opportunities for laundering of illegally acquired birds and reduce smuggling.

4. “Many of the world’s poorest communities earn a significant part of their income from trading in wildlife, and without this income people living in close proximity to wild animals may not have the same incentive to protect them.” --CITES Secretariat

FACT: Exploiting wild birds does not provide meaningful and equitable financial benefits to people who live near these birds. The seasonality of bird captures and the low value of exported birds mean that the wild bird trade only provides a meager income to people who live near the birds. Profits are monopolized by a handful of middle men and importers. For example, local trappers of blue-fronted Amazon parrots (Amazona aestiva) earn an estimated US$10 per specimen while these same birds sell for up to US$750 in Europe. Similarly, in Tanzania, it is estimated that trappers earn 1-2% of the price paid for the same bird in consumer countries (Mulliken et al., 1996). Export values show that the bird trade is not important to the economies of most range countries (Mulliken et al., 1996).

There is not one example of trade in wild birds that has provided sufficient resources to fund adequate, science-based monitoring and management of an exploited wild bird population. The capture and export of Amazona aestiva from Argentina is often touted as an example of local communities benefiting from trade in wild birds while protecting wild populations of the species. However, despite almost ten years of operation, the Amazona aestiva project in Argentina has not produced the scientifically-based information needed to manage the trade to ensure it is sustainable or to demonstrate that the wild population is not being harmed by capture and export.

In contrast, there are alternative ways in which people who live near wildlife can benefit from wildlife without harming wild populations, such as carefully planned and regulated ecotourism (Vieta 1999). Whales and sea turtles are worth much more alive than dead: whale watching is ten times more profitable than hunting (Hoyt 2001) and sea turtles are worth three times more alive than dead (Troeng et al., 2004). Birdwatching is a valuable source of tourist revenue in many parts of the world, and it frequently provides opportunities for local people to earn revenue as guides for visiting birders. For example, in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, the economic impact of birders at surveyed refuges is estimated to be in excess of US$90 million per year. An estimated 14,000 - 22,000 birders annually visit the Platte River in Nebraska and contributed between US$25 to US$50 million in the rural communities (WDFW 2005).

5. “While any government may impose ‘stricter domestic measures’ under CITES to limit wildlife imports for human health or other reasons, international wildlife trade – like other global environmental matters – should be managed through multilateral action and agreement.” – CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers

FACT: CITES is not an appropriate venue for discussing the need to restrict trade in wildlife for the purposes of protecting human health.

Countries that participate in CITES should not be discouraged from acting unilaterally to protect the health of their citizens or to address a threat to the survival of a species after multilateral action has proven ineffective.

References Cited:

Birdlife International. 2003. Saving Asia’s Threatened Birds: a Guide for Government and Civil Society.

Clemmons, J.R. 2003. Status Survey of the African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus timneh) and Development of a Management Program in Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. CITES, Geneva, Switzerland.

Hoyt, E. 2001. Whale Watching 2001:Worldwide tourism numbers, expenditures, and expanding socioeconomic benefits. International Fund for Animal Welfare, Yarmouth Port, MA, USA, pp. i–vi; 1–158.

IUCN. 2004. 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

IUCN. 2000. 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. As referenced in http://www.cites.org/eng/resources/species.html

IUCN. 1996. 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. As referenced in http://www.cites.org/eng/resources/species.html

Juniper, T. 2002. Spix’s Macaw: The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird. London: Fourth Estate.

Mulliken et al., 1996. A global overview of the wild bird trade: In: The live bird trade in Tanzania. N.Leader-Williams & R. Tibanyenda (Eds.). IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.

Shepherd, Chris R., Jeet Sukumaran, Serge A. Wich. 2004. Open Season:An analysis of the pet trade in Medan, Sumatra 1997 - 2001. TRAFFIC Southeast Asia

Troeng, S and Drews C. 2004. Money Talks: Economic Aspects of Marine Turtle Use and Conservation, WWF-International, Gland Switzerland.

Vieta, Frances E. 1999. Ecotourism propels development. Africa Recovery, Vol.13(1).

Wright, T. F., C. A. Toft, E. Enkerlin-Hoeflich, J. Gonzalez-Elizondo, M. Albornoz, A. Rodriguez-Ferraro, F. Rojas-Suarez, V. Sanz, A. Trujillo, S. R. Beissinger, V. Berovides A, X. Galvez A, A. T. Brice, K. Joyner, J. Eberhard, J. Gilardi, S. E. Koenig, S. Stoleson, P. Martuscelli, J. M. Meyers, K. Renton, A. M. Rodriguez, A. C. Sosa-Asanza, F. J. Vilella, and J. W. Wiley. 2001. Nest poaching in neotropical parrots. Conservation Biology 15:710-720.

WDFW (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife). Retrieved 21 November 2005 from, http://wdfw.wa.gov/viewing/watchwld/watchwld.htm


--Prepared by the Species Survival Network, 24 November 2005
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