A wildlife protection group has criticised the government for not doing enough to stop avian influenza reaching the UK. The Animal Protection Agency (APA), which campaigns against the trade in wild animals for pets, has claimed that wild-caught South East Asian species were sold at an exotic bird market in Stafford on 9th October 2005 and are probably being sold at other markets around the country.
The view of APA is that export bans on several S E Asian countries will not stop wildlife traffickers bringing these birds into the UK as long as there is an incentive to sell them quickly through illegal markets. The bird market that took place on 9th October at the Staffordshire Agricultural Showground involved the sale of thousands of birds but, as far as APA is aware, there was no official enforcement presence checking what species were being offered for sale and their origins.
Peter Robinson, Consultant Ornithologist and former Head of Investigations for the RSPB, spent several hours at the Stafford event with APA investigators and noted various S E Asian species on sale. Two traders acknowledged that these S E Asian birds were wild-caught although one claimed 'not recently'. The export of exotic birds was banned from many S E Asian counties in January 2004 it therefore seems almost implausible that dealers would retain their 'stock' for so long as mortality rates in wild-caught birds following capture are known to be very high.
Exotic birds imported into the European Union are required to undergo a minimum of 30 days quarantine and can then be moved on to other countries including the UK, without requiring further quarantine. Dealers, however, choose to import birds into countries that are considered to be weak points of entry such as Belgium or Holland and where quarantine protocols are considered to be poorly enforced.
Says Elaine Toland, Director of the Animal Protection Agency;
"The government cannot assure the public that everything is being done to guard against the introduction of avian influenza into the UK, as long as it is allowing wild bird markets. These events are a hub of illegal activity but seem to be impervious to the law. Medical experts recognise the inherent public health risks associated with bird markets and the government should by now have taken firm action to close them down. Hopefully, it's not too late to do this now!"
A 1983 amendment to the Pet Animals Act 1951 prohibits the business of selling pet animals in public places and markets but the recently published Animal Welfare Bill carries with it a proposal to overturn this ban. The Bill has received strong support from animal dealers and vested interest groups but none from animal protection groups, veterinary bodies and public health consultants. Ben Bradshaw, the Minister in charge of the Animal Welfare Bill and also in charge of the State Veterinary Service (whose job it would be to deal with avian flu introduced via pet markets) recently confirmed that no action would be taken against ongoing bird markets despite their associated public health risks.