Top Cape bird park hit as deadly avian virus spreads

Sunday Times - - FRONT PAGE - By BOBBY JOR­DAN

The World of Birds, Africa’s largest bird park, at the foot of Ta­ble Moun­tain, is un­der quar­an­tine af­ter sev­eral con­firmed cases of bird flu.

Swans, ducks, ibises and now even blue cranes — the na­tional bird — have joined the grow­ing list of in­fected birds, the pop­u­lar tourist site re­vealed this week.

This fol­lows wide­spread culling of mil­lions of chick­ens and ducks — two mil­lion in the West­ern Cape alone — as the H5N8 highly path­o­genic avian in­fluenza virus takes its toll. It is a strain of bird flu not seen be­fore in South Africa, and ap­pears to be out of con­trol.

“We are at the heart of the out­break at the mo­ment. It is a very sad and stress­ful time,” said World of Birds gen­eral man­ager Hen­drik Louw.

Louw said the park re­mained open and ur­gently needed do­na­tions to help con­tain the out­break, which is not harm­ful to hu­mans.

He said bio-se­cu­rity con­trol mea­sures im­ple­mented af­ter the first case was re­ported in the Boland town of Welling­ton were not enough to pre­vent wild birds en­ter­ing the park and in­fect­ing its pop­u­la­tion.

“We could only con­trol this at ground level and had no chance against free-fly­ing wild birds that pose the great­est risk,” Louw said.

Staff have spent R10 000 on di­ag­nos­tic tests and used nearly 1 000 litres of dis­in­fec­tant in the past 10 days.

Many birds have been eu­thanased and oth­ers were ex­pected to test pos­i­tive, Louw said, adding that some birds were car­ri­ers and did not nec­es­sar­ily die.

“We are cur­rently deal­ing with our blue cranes. We only took a sam­ple out of a flock of seven [which tested pos­i­tive] and now we are run­ning tests on the re­main­ing seven.”

World of Birds has more than 400 species of birds and other an­i­mals, and draws about 100 000 vis­i­tors an­nu­ally. Louw ap­pealed to vis­i­tors not to stay away: “If we had to close to the pub­lic we would not sur­vive.”

The Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, Forestry and Fish­eries con­firmed the cri­sis was the worst yet, with 62 re­ported out­breaks in the West­ern Cape, Gaut­eng and Mpumalanga: 18 in com­mer­cial chick­ens, two in com­mer­cial ducks, 12 in com­mer­cial os­trich, 16 in wild birds, eight in birds kept as a hobby and six in back-yard poul­try.

Also on the list are laugh­ing doves, spar­rows, guinea fowl and finches. Ex­perts say some species are more sus­cep­ti­ble to the virus than oth­ers, with higher mor­tal­ity.

“South Africa has never be­fore ex­pe­ri­enced an out­break of HPAI [highly path­o­genic avian in­fluenza] in chick­ens or any do­mes­tic birds other than os­triches, which makes this out­break a very sig­nif­i­cant and se­ri­ous out­break in South Africa’s an­i­mal health his­tory,” the depart­ment said.

The depart­ment said the virus orig­i­nated in China and had been spread mainly by mi­grat­ing wild wa­ter­fowl.

Gary Arnold, MD of poul­try pro­ducer As­tral Foods, said be­cause H5N8 was new to South Africa it could not be com­pared to other out­breaks.

“Sig­nif­i­cant poul­try stock has had to be de­stroyed in the lo­cal in­dus­try and this poses a se­ri­ous threat to food se­cu­rity.”

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