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Free as a bird – or under surveillance?
Plan for global wild birds tracking system
1 June 2006, Rome - Flying backpackers, communications satellites and a network of computers would monitor the movements of wild birds on their annual migrations under a plan proposed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The 6.8-million-dollar plan could also provide the world with crucial advance warning of the occurrence of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus, which causes bird flu. Deploying teams of national and international veterinary and wild bird experts on the ground, it would fill a huge gap in scientific knowledge about where, when and how wild birds associated with HPAI – principally aquatic and shore birds – migrate.

“All we have now is a snapshot. We need to see the whole film,” says Joseph Domenech, Chief Veterinary Officer of FAO.

The plan involves capturing thousands of wild birds before they migrate, testing sample birds for disease, and fitting some of them out with tiny backpacks weighing less than 50 grams each. After the birds are released, the sophisticated telemetry equipment inside the packs would track their every movement.

A system of radio beacons and satellites would then feed data into the computers of ornithologists, ecologists, virologists and epidemiologists round the world.

The project is in line with recommendations made at a two-day international scientific conference on avian influenza and wild birds which ended yesterday. The conference, attended by some 300 scientists from over 100 countries, was organized by FAO and the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

Wild birds’ role

The conference concluded that wild birds do play a role in transporting HPAI over long distances but that human activities such as poultry production and trade are principally responsible for spreading the disease.

It noted, however, that there was a basic need for better understanding of wild bird migration and the associated risks of virus introduction. And it also called for telemetry and satellite technology to be used in such studies.

Under FAO’s plan, the backpacks would show the migrating birds’ exact whereabouts when they stop over for rest and recreation on their long journeys. Mobile, ground-based teams would then re-test the sample birds for disease and, in the case of a positive return, have a good idea of where the infection originated and where it might head next.

Early warning would give governments and producers more time to respond to potential threats – with great benefits for the poultry industry and society at large.

FAO together with the World Health Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health has initiated a global early warning and response system (GLEWS) which monitors livestock and emerging transboundary diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease, rinderpest, swine fever, ebola, and Rift valley fever.

“But so far wildlife and wild birds have fallen into the cracks,” Domenech said. The proposed new system - in which several organizations, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, Wetlands International, CIRAD, the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development and others could participate – would feed into the GLEWS system.

A small part of the money to fund the project is already on hand, but FAO would need the help of donors and governments to get it up and flying.

Free as a bird? Yes, but under close surveillance.
Contact:
Christopher Matthews
Information Officer, FAO
christopher.matthews@fao.org
(+39) 06 570 53762

Contact:

Christopher Matthews
Information Officer, FAO
christopher.matthews@fao.org
(+39) 06 570 53762

AFP/D. Mihailescu

Birds fly over a lake in Bucharest.

Audio

Interview with Juan Lubroth, Head, Infectious Disease Group: Avian influenza: blame it on wild birds? (mp3)

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Free as a bird – or under surveillance?
Plan for global wild birds tracking system
1 June 2006 - FAO plans to monitor wild birds' migrations for advance warning of HPAI.
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