Avian flu outbreak in the Gambia threatens birds on East Atlantic Flyway

An outbreak of avian influenza in seabirds in the Gambia could affect vast numbers of birds migrating along the East Atlantic Flyway, unless international funding is secured, warn conservationists.

Teams from the West African Bird Study Association (Wabsa), the Gambia’s Department of Parks and Wildlife Management, and UK-based NGO Conservation Without Borders have buried hundreds of dead birds over the past three weeks, including some ringed birds from Europe.

The Gambia’s Ministry of Agriculture confirmed the H5N1 outbreak on 4 April after analysing samples from Tanji bird reserve, about 12 miles from the capital, Banjul. The East Atlantic Flyway links bird migration routes from the Arctic Circle to southern Africa via western Europe.

“It’s migration season, so these outbreaks threaten birds and poultry all the way from Africa to Europe and the UK,” said Sacha Dench, founder of Conservation Without Borders and an ambassador for the UN’s Convention on Migratory Species, who saw more than 500 dead seabirds at two sites last week at the Tanji bird reserve.

“The local conservation organisation [Wabsa] is expected to respond yet can’t even afford the £24 boat fuel to go to Bijol Islands,” Dench said. “The cost of it spreading is so much more than simply surveillance and control by good field workers.”

Many low- to-middle-income countries have limited conservation funds, she added. “Most rely on international funding and some money from tourism to pay for the services of local park staff. But when an emergency like bird flu hits, the government has priorities like chicken being important protein for local people.

“Rapid reaction is critical. So having staff on the ground with the resources that enable them to act is essential,” said Dench, who secured temporary funds for the boat fuel. She has written to ask the UK government to help fund the surveillance and disposal of infected birds, a critical matter for the government at a time when the UK’s bird flu restrictions on free-range poultry are only just being lifted.

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“Investing in monitoring activities in developing countries would save a lot of birds we love, and could save [the poultry farming] industry a lot of money,” said Dench, who hopes that other national governments could also support the Gambia’s avian flu recovery efforts. “This is more than conservation, this is management of a global pandemic, and we should at least be offering assistance to those with less resources on the migration flyways that the UK sits right at the centre of.”

Fagimba Camara, head of the research unit at Wabsa, who has been monitoring the Bijol Islands and digging holes in the sand to bury dead birds, says that minimising spread of infection is a “big task”.

“This is the most important place for migratory species in the Gambia because we record so many in large numbers, including royal terns, Caspian terns, ruddy turnstones and osprey, which fly from Scotland and other parts of Europe for their wintering time.” At the beginning of the month, Camara found 246 dead birds. This week, his team found 107, mainly royal terns. “At least we are seeing the number of affected birds decreasing,” he said.

Awa Joof, research officer for Wabsa, said: “The most difficult thing to do is dig bird graves, so it is definitely so sad for me to see birds dying in such large numbers.”

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