Athens (AFP) Oct 12, 2005
Normally at loggerheads over the fate of local wildlife, Greek hunters and ecologists have been forced into an unlikely alliance amid fears that flocks of migratory birds could bring avian flu to the country.
Both groups are focusing attention on the estuary of the Evros River in northeastern Greece which is a transit point for birds migrating from northern Europe and Russia.
"The ministry of agriculture has asked a series of organisations to help prevent the spread of this virus," said Constantinos Liarikos, head of field operations for the Greek branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
"We are all responding to this call," he told AFP.
The disparate groups are contributing in their own ways. The ecologists will trap birds and collect blood samples, while the hunters have pledged to hand over 1,000 bird carcasses for inspection during the October-January open game season.
Forty samples of Evros estuary birds, including ducks, thrushes and quails have already been submitted to a ministry laboratory in the northern port city of Salonika for tests, with results expected later this week.
"Nearly every wild bird carries some sort of disease," Liarikos said. "But birds that are ill normally do not migrate, it's the healthy ones that cover great distances."
One species under inspection is the protected black vulture population in the Dadia Forest Wildlife Reserve, near the city of Alexandroupolis in north Greece.
"The vultures have contact with Bulgaria and Turkey, which are (currently) considered high-risk areas," Liarikos said.
The results have so far shown no full-blown cases of the virus, but the birds' droppings must now be tested to establish whether any birds were carriers, he added.
According to the Hellenic Ornithological Society, the monitoring effort is concentrated on 15 species of birds, most of which are found in wetlands.
"Hunters are the only ones who can do this," asserted Nikos Papadodimas, chairman of the Hellenic Hunting Confederation. "We know where to find the birds... We possess a network that no ecologist has access to," he added, pointing to the 250,000 members of his confederation nationwide.
The disease has been spread to some humans directly from poultry, but officials fear that the virus could erupt into a full-blown pandemic if it mutates in such a way as to be spread between people.
Health and veterinary officials from Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey are due to meet in the northern Greek city of Didymoteicho on October 21 to exchange lab results on bird samples, and coordinate future action.
On Wednesday, the European Commission said that tests for bird flu in Romania have so far proved negative.
But statistics are not on the side of those seeking to contain the threat, as health officials worry that a major global flu outbreak is overdue. According to David Nabarro, the United Nations envoy responsible for monitoring the advance of avian flu around the world, a pandemic to occur every 30 to 40 years.
"We're certainly due for one now," he told CNN on October 9.
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