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News & features archive, 2010


Wild bird telemetry project helps FAO to better understand disease ecology of emerging diseases and the role of migratory birds in transmission dynamics

19 January 2010 ľ The concept behind wild bird radio telemetry is straightforward: attaching a radio transmitter to a wild bird and track the emitted signals to determine its movements. This monitoring technique determines bird movements over areas ranging in size from the restricted breeding sites of resident bird species to the pathways of international migratory species. Telemetry has important applications in the investigation of infectious diseases carried by migratory species, including the virus ecology of H5N1 avian influenza virus and other diseases. Telemetry projects tracking the local movements and migration routes of wild birds identified as potential virus hosts are already underway in many parts of the world, being particularly important for understanding ecology of emerging diseases in Asia.

For example, in Hong Kong SAR China, a twelve-month satellite tracking project discovered that coastal regions of the Yellow Sea [in Eastern China] are critical staging areas for over 90 per cent of Hong Kong's ducks within the East Asia-Australasian Flyway. These ducks require a wide range of inland and coastal wetland habitats scattered across many countries (China, Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea) to complete their epic migration journeys, which may therefore carry animal health implications if these animals are asymptomatic hosts of emerging infectious diseases. In recent years, transboundary animal diseases have been highlighted as priority by leading animal and human health agencies, especially after the sudden appearance of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Nipah virus and H5N1 influenza virus in the region.

The wild bird telemetry project was launched in December 2008 when five institutions decided to jointly collaborate in search for answers to burning questions. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) partnered with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Department of Microbiology of the University of Hong Kong, Asia Ecological Consultants and the US Geological Survey (USGS) to undertake a variety of activities dealing with ecology and conservation dimensions as well as wildlife disease issues. Their teams successfully fitted satellite receivers on 24 wild ducks (Eurasian Wigeon and Northern Pintail) at the Mai Po Nature Reserve. After release, the project team tracked the duck signals and locations weekly via institutional tracking websites or using Google Earth applications. The information gathered through subsequent phases of this collaborative project will be used to support an array of research themes in the various initiatives launched and supported by the institutions so far involved.