- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2006

Bird flu entering the United States through smuggled wildlife is a growing worry for government officials already on the lookout for migrating wild birds.

The concern over the trade in wild animals, pets and animal parts has some precedent, here and abroad.

Gambian rats imported from Africa brought the monkey-pox virus to the United States in 2003. They infected prairie dogs purchased as pets. Seventy-two persons in the Midwest became ill, but none died.

In 2004, two Crested Hawk-Eagles carrying the virulent strain of the H5N1 bird-flu virus were seized from the carry-on luggage of a Thai passenger at Brussels International Airport. The passenger had planned to sell the birds to a Belgian falconer.

Not one of the 25 persons exposed to the virus became ill. Officials killed 200 parrots and 600 smaller birds that had contact with the Crested Hawk-Eagles.

“We’re very concerned about it coming into the U.S. by whatever means,” Assistant Secretary of State Claudia McMurray said.

The deadly H5N1 virus has spread through Asia, Europe and Africa but has not arrived in the United States. Scientists fear the virus could evolve into a form that would pass easily from person to person.

A surveillance plan for monitoring migratory birds says a wild bird is the most likely carrier of the H5N1 virus.

The plan, developed by the Interior and Agriculture departments and the state of Alaska for use in all 50 states, also says the virus could arrive through smuggled poultry, an infected traveler, black-market trade in exotic birds or even an act of bioterrorism.

Authorities in other countries are similarly wary. An estimated 4,500 chickens from China are smuggled into Vietnam every day — and the H5N1 virus has shown up in samples taken from some of the confiscated birds.

The United States and China are the biggest markets for an estimated $10 billion global trade in illegal wildlife. The black market in wildlife and wildlife parts is second only to trafficking in arms and drugs.

About 330,000 live birds were imported into the United States in 2004. Just 374 were denied entry, suggesting that smugglers may focus on different routes.

The ones denied entry came mainly from Mexico, Guyana and Ghana. The biggest sources of live birds were Canada, with 117,000; Taiwan, 50,000; Tanzania, nearly 40,000; and Belgium, 24,000.

The U.S. banned imports of all live birds, bird parts and bird products from Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam in February 2004. Since then, the ban has been expanded to any country or region where bird flu is thought to exist.

“The borders are where the increased emphasis needs to be,” said Simon Habel, director of TRAFFIC North America, which works closely with the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

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