Ban all wild bird trade - ministers

Whitehall wants imports to the continent halted as part of avian flu precautions. Geoffrey Lean and Severin Carrell report
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Indy Politics

Ministers are pushing for a Europe-wide ban on the trade in wild birds after a parrot died of bird flu in quarantine on Friday night.

Senior Whitehall sources said yesterday that Debby Reynolds, the Government's chief vet, yesterday wrote to the European Commission urging a halt on the import of birds - from anywhere in the world - to stop the virus entering Britain and the Continent through the back door.

She wrote the letter as the parrot was undergoing further tests at the Veterinary Laboratory Agency in Weybridge, Surrey, to see if it had perished from the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, which has killed some 60 people in Asia. If so, it effectively brings the virus to Britain for the first time. The result will be known today.

The parrot arrived in Britain on 16 September, after being imported as part of a batch of 148 parrots and "soft bills' - birds that eat soft food - from Surinam. They were being held in quarantine with another 216 birds from Taiwan. All have been slaughtered, and their quarters disinfected.

If the parrot does turn out to have the H5N1 virus it will probably have caught it from one of the Taiwanese birds, since, as far as is known, it has not yet reached South America.

Birds can carry the virus without showing any symptoms of the disease, but the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that all birds are tested for the flu before being released from quarantine. It refused yesterday to disclose where the parrot was being held.

Belgium already supports the Government's push for a European ban, which, if successful, would shut down the world's major market for the trade.

Europe is by far the world's largest importer of birds caught in the wild. It brings in about a million of them every year, accounting for four out of every five traded worldwide. The United States banned the trade in 1992.

Britain, in turn, is Europe's largest importer of parrots, most of which are caught in the wild. And it ranks as seventh in the import of all wild birds, receiving 114,108 between 2000 and 2003, the last period for which figures are available. Italy imported most, with 657,905 birds.

Most are exported from Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Tanzania, Pakistan, Argentina, Guyana, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with Surinam as the 10th-biggest source.

Experts and conservation groups have been warning the Government for months that the trade in wild birds for pets would bring bird flu to Britain.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds warned officials of the danger in August, when The Independent on Sunday was the first to predict that the virus would reach Britain this year. And the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals produced a report concluding that there was a "high risk" that illegally traded birds would bring the disease to Europe.

In December last year, more than 200 pressure groups and other organisations from around the world delivered a joint declaration to the British and other European governments warning that the trade posed "serious and substantial risks to the health and livelihoods of European citizens" - including the risks posed by bird flu. All have been pressing for a ban on the trade, for endangering rare birds. One in 10 endangered species worldwide is being driven closer to extinction by the trade.

All imported birds have to be quarantined. But a report for the RSPCA by Dennis Alexander, until his recent retirement one of the Government's most senior experts on the disease, reveals that a few birds slipped through the net in the 1990s.

However, any threat from this legal trade pales into insignificance besides the threat from illegally smuggled birds, which evade quarantine. Mr Alexander's report concludes that "there is a high risk that these birds may be infected or contaminated with [the] virus and thus introduce it to the EU."

As if to prove the point, a Thai man was found by customs at Brussels, almost a year ago, carrying two rare mountain hawk eagles in his hand-baggage: one of them was infected.

Smuggling wild birds can be extremely lucrative, with prices ranging from £70 for wild-caught grey parrots up to £10,000 for the rarest macaws and falcons. This makes the trade almost impossible to control.