Thursday, October 05, 2006

Speaking in New York City on October 10th

I'll be giving a talk for the Linnaean Society of New York at 7:30 pm on October 10th at the American Museum of Natural History. Admission is free. Please enter at West 77th street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. The talk will be held in the Lindner Theater.

I'm looking forward to sharing some good things happening in Iraq. In the talks I've done before, I always meet some great like-minded people.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Iraqi Hunters and Conservation

I came across the website of the Iraqi Hunters Association . The gallery has a few photos from hunts in Iraq showing Black Francolin, Ruddy Shelducks and Greylag Geese. There is also a wildlife page with some interesting commentary on different species of Iraqi game and non-game wildlife. According to the site the Houbara Bustard has declined significantly and methods such as using nets and lights (jacklighting) are used to hunt them. They suggest all methods be banned except for the traditional use of trained falcons.

The website got me thinking about hunting and conservation. Among the goals of the association are setting bag limits for species that have populations that can support hunting and banning the taking of species that are threatened. They also espouse the conservation of habitat and better land management.

Prior to the war, hunting was popular in Iraq. One of our clinics near Baghdad was Saddam Hussein's hunting lodge. In the winter, good numbers of waterfowl come to the surrounding lakes. These days walking around with a shotgun or hunting rifle just might get you killed.

In the US there are many hunting organizations that have a large conservation component such as Ducks Unlimited and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Hunters are often natural partners in conservation and have a deep appreciation for nature. Some organizations and governments have conducted auctions of big game hunting permits to fund conservation programs. The US Fish and Wildlife Service issues Federal Duck stamps to fund the National Wildlife Refuge program. Every US hunter must purchase a stamp annually if they want to hunt migratory waterfowl. The money is used to buy or lease wetland habitat.

I think its a good sign that there are people in Iraq thinking about sustainable hunting. There may be opportunities for international groups to get involved. Perhaps correct management of some big game animals such as gazelle or Ibex could allow limited hunting where licenses could fund local conservation programs. The verdict is still out on the cost-benefit of these type of programs, but it could be an option. In Pakistan limited trophy hunting of Markhor, Ibex and Blue Sheep have shown some success. License fees have allowed game wardens to be hired and significantly reduced poaching since it cuts into the local communities potential revenues. Hunting permits for the endangered Markhor are auctioned and went for 25,000 to 55,000 US dollars last year.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

More Birding from the Victory Base Complex

John and Marc have some great pictures up on the Yahoo group Operation Iraqi Birds. Both are serving on the Victory Base Complex in Baghdad and seeing some good birds.

Among recent sightings have been Little Grebe, Pygmy Cormorant, 3 species of Kingfishers (Pied, Common and White-breasted), Wattled, Spur-winged and White-tailed Plovers, Black-winged Stilt, Common and Iraq Babblers, Squacco Heron, Little Egret, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Black Francolin, Wood Pigeon, Collared Dove, Rufous Bush Robin, Magpie and Graceful Prinia. There are many nice photos in the gallery on the OIBirds site.

One of the recent pictures showed at least 3 additional species of smaller shorebirds (One was most likely a redshank). Now is the time to start looking for the migrants coming from the far north.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Iraq records a critically endangered bird

One of the rarest birds in the world, the Northern Bald Ibis has been satellite tracked to extreme western Iraq during its migration south from the breeding grounds of the tiny remenant population of 13 birds in Syria (discovered in 2002) to Yemen. The name of the male bird tracked through Iraq is Salam (Peace). Hopefully, this name will be prophetic for both the birds and Iraq.

The bird was recorded in Iraq on the morning of July 18th having flown 207 km from its breeding grounds in Palmyra, Syria since the day before. The bird is currently in Western Yemen along with two other tagged birds.

The fact that there are more Northern Bald Ibis in capitivity than in the wild highlights their tenuous hold. Another small wild population exists in Morocco.

The bird once found throughout Europe and the Middle East has experience a spectacular decline. A colony in Turkey dropped from 600-800 pairs in 1954 to 6 pairs in 1980. It was last wild birds nested in 1989, when the remaining few birds were captured for a captive breeding program.

I previously had the Northern Bald Ibis listed as extirpated on the Iraqi list. I've happily changed the Bald Ibis status on the Iraqi checklist from extirpated to rare visitor. Historically there were a few colonies in Iraq. I couldn't find any references, save a map in the IUEP Action Plan for the Northern Bald Ibis.

After going undiscovered for so long in Syria, perhaps there is a chance that other relict colonies exist in Syria and maybe even remote areas of Iraq.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Good News for the Endangered Basra Reed Warbler

Birdlife International has announced the discovery of breeding Basrah Reed Warblers far out of the known breeding areas of Iraq and Iran. 4 birds including a recently fledged juvenile were found in Israel's Hula Valley in June 2006. A newly discovered disjunct population would be great news for this ICUN Red-listed species. The revegetation of the southern marshes of Iraq also bode well for this small songbird whose population may have dropped up to 80% since the early 1970's. In Iraq the bird has been found in reed-filled marshes and riverbanks from Baghdad to the Shatt Al-Arab marshes in the south. In 1981 a survey reported breeding birds in the Jadriyah section of Baghdad right across the river from the Green Zone. The birds might survive in small patches in greater Baghdad, though the original site now has been significantly degraded. The stronghold remains the lower Mesopotamian marshes.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Iraq Natural History References and Iraq Fauna Wiki

I wish I knew what was happening at my other site The unique visitors are going through the roof! My hope is that it will be used primarily by Iraqis to share information on the country's animal biodiversity. So far I've been the only editor, so its not living up to its potential as a collaborative site. I have been working on the Iraq bird list and slowly adding Arabic names and links to both species photos and range maps, where available.

I've also added more links for people to explore. I'll copy them here to give them a wider audience. Remember anyone can edit the Iraqfauna wiki and add to it. All previous versions are saved so don't worry about wrecking anything.
Iraq Natural History Links from
Longhorn Beetles (Cerambycidae) of the Western Palearctic - Michal Hoskovek and Martin Rejzek of the Czech Republic have compiled an illustrated list of the hundreds of species of this large and economically important group of beetles. Their site also has field trip reports from Iran, Syria and Turkey. A very impressive site.

The Sphingidae of the Western Palearctic - Tony Pittaway's comprehensive site covering all the Hawkmoths of the region. Detailed species pages have photos of adults, caterpillars and sometimes parasitoids. An excellent resource.

Scorpions of Iraq - A pictorial introduction to the species of scorpions in Iraq by Norwegian scorpion researcher Jan Ove Rein.

FISHBASE - List of Fish of Iraq This incredible resource has over 1000 collaborators and has a huge amount of info on Iraqi Fish derived from their database. Info includes pictures, bibliography, collection data.

Freshwater Fishes of Iraq - A project of Brian W. Coad, a scientist at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. In addition to a great picture of a large Tigris Salmon (Barbus esocinus), this site has the most authoritative species list, a list of Arabic fish names and a huge bibliography of over 1500 entries.

Laura Erikson's Birderblog - Iraq Species Gallery - A selection of bird photos taken in Iraq by US military and civilians sent to Laura Erikson who runs Birderblog.

Birding Babylon - Natural history notes from Iraq. Started in March 2004 when Jonathan Trouern-Trend deployed to Iraq with the US Army.

Birdlife International's Important Bird Areas in Iraq - Link to descriptions and map pages of areas identified as IBAs in Iraq.

Birds of the Western Palearctic - Maps for all the birds on the Western Palearctic list. Iraq is on the far eastern border of the region.

Birds of Kuwait - Part of Abdul-Rahman Al-Sirhan's fantastic site on the wildlife of Kuwait. He has spent the last few years photographing and documenting the fauna of Kuwait and has a large number of great photos. Most bird species found in Kuwait can also be found in parts of Iraq. Google's Arabic-English translation tool can be used read the Arabic parts of the website.

Environmental Organizations working in Iraq
Birdlife International

Canada-Iraq Marshlands Initiative

Eden Again/Iraq Nature

Iraq Nature Conservation Association

UN Environmental Program - Marshlands Project

Iraqi Marshlands Observation System - a collaborative project that uses satellite imagery and landcover analysis to document the restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshes in Southern Iraq. Includes weekly imagery. April 2006 - Marsh Vegetation at 58% of pre-drainage levels - In March 2003 the marshes were down to approximately 7% of historic levels.

Academic and Governmental Organizations
Ministry of Environment - English language website for the Iraqi Ministry of Environment in Baghdad.

University of Basrah Marine Science Center - An institution devoted to studying the study of the biology and environment of the southern Iraqi Marshes, the Shatt Al-Arab and the Arabian Gulf. Publishes a newsletter and the Journals Marina Mesopotamica and the Journal of Aquaculture.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Here's another critter people don't expect to see in Iraq, a Crested Porcupine (Hystrix indica). This large rodent can weigh up to 40 pounds. The photo was taken by Rocco Moschetti, a vector control specialist who worked in Iraq for 2 years. This porcupine wandered into a trap set for feral dogs at Al Asad Airbase in Al Anbar province. Other interesting animals he caught included jungle cat and striped hyena.

Another birder is now active at the Camp Victory complex near the Baghdad International Airport. John is an Air Force Officer on a 4 month rotation, which should get him into the best times for fall shorebirds, landbirds and waterfowl. John has written about some of the birds he's seen at his blog and he's started a yahoo group called Operation Iraq Birds where he'll be posting some of his pictures. He's at least the fifth resident of the base complex who has been a serious birder. I was only a visitor, but I did see some great birds on base.

Two of his predecessors LTC Bob and Joe H from Alaska both compiled impressive lists within the confines of the few interconnected bases. The variety of habitats from large lakes, reed-lined canals, scrub and mudflats add to the bird diversity.

Laura Erickson at Birderblog is still getting photos of birds from people stationed in Iraq. She's accumulated quite a gallery that is worth checking out.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Today I found an announcement of the designation of the first wildlife refuge that I've heard of in Iraq. The Assafia Wildlife Sanctuary is located in the Al-Hawizah Marsh between Basrah and Amara near the Iranian border in the south of the country. This marsh was essentially the only part of the mesopotamian marshes that survived the draining in the 1980's and 90's. The fact that the marsh also received water from a river in Iran probably saved it from the fate of the central marshlands. By 2000 Al-Hawizah was reduced to 35% of its 1970's levels. Since 2003, the marsh has started to expand again because of reflooding. A dike being built on the Iranian side of the marsh will probably have a negative impact on the marsh by diverting water coming from the Karkeh and Karun Rivers.

The Al-Hawizah Marsh was said to have one of the largest concentrations of wintering waterbirds in the world. It unknown the status today, but the marsh once held large numbers ofwintering Greylag Goose, Mallard, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Teal, Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Red-crested Pochard, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Greater Flamingo and Coot. Breeding birds include the Endangered Basra Reed Warbler, Grey Hypocolius and Iraq Babbler. Historically Goliath Heron, African Darter and Sacred Ibis were found in the marsh.

In February a meeting between the Basrah Marine Science Center and local government officials established a plan to manage the sanctuary including conducting a biological inventory and provide environmental education of people living near the sanctuary.

This is a big step. Iraq under the former regime had no real conservation infrastructure. The few conservation laws, such as countrywide bans on hunting, were ignored.

A recent paper entitled "Restoring the Garden of Eden: An ecological assessment of the marshes of Iraq" was published this past week in the Journal Bioscience. The paper documents the revival of some of the Mesopotamian marshes since the fall of the former regime in March of 2003.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

You may notice some format changes. Its the result of blogger crapping out when I was making a minor change to the template. I was left with no template and the backup was not too useful.

The book seems to be getting a lot of press, which is nice. Emily Gertz wrote a nice story about my time in Iraq and my ongoing interest in the region. The story is running in the current edition of Grist Magazine. I was interviewed today by the Baltimore Sun. On Saturday I am scheduled to be on CNN around 12:30.

I was very excited to see that google has a new Arabic/English translation program in Beta. The one I've used before was somewhat limited. Like the other translation programs that Google has, it will do a machine translation of a website on the fly. Depending on the language, you can often get a passable translation. I tried it on this site as well as the Iraq Fauna Wiki. I'm planning to use it to create an Arabic mirror. Like all Machine Translations the result will need work, but its a start. If nothing else it could produce some amusing reading for Arabic speakers. Currently it seems to work best for news and would not be recommended for poetry.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Iraq Fauna Wiki and Fly Fishing in Iraq

I thought I'd elaborate a bit more on the new site I recently set up called Iraq Fauna. Its a wiki format, so like wikipedia where anyone can edit the entries this new site is meant to develop as an aggregation of information and ideas about animal life and the environment in Iraq. Please email me if you have any trouble using the site. To edit a page all you need to do is press the edit button and start typing. Don't worry about screwing anything up, all previous versions are saved and can be recovered.

I'd like to emphasize the collaborative part of this, and invite everyone to contribute to the extent they can, even if it is reformatting the text on a page. I think, relatively rapidly we can build a site that can be a valuable resource. For those who have been in Iraq or are currently in the country please add your observations and photos. I'll be adding all my wildlife and habitat photos to the gallery.

I've set up the skeleton of the site and I'm currently working on. I also have put up a list for the Birds of Iraq, which is a starting point for developing a definitive list based on well documented sightings and specimen records. I'm hoping to have a significant amount of Arabic language content and welcome anyone who wants to start working on it. I'll be adding Arabic names on the Checklist of the Birds of Iraq page.

On another note I found a
great website written by Joel, a US Navy officer, devoted to fishing in the lakes around the Camp Victory Complex near Baghdad International Airport. This guy even started a Fly Fishing Course for military personnel! Also some nice fish pictures.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Environmental NGOs in Iraq

Nature Iraq has it's latest newsletter up on the Eden Again Website. Many positive developments are reported including the release of an Interim master plan for restoration and management of the southern marshes by the New Eden Group (A collaboration of Nature Iraq and the Italian Ministry of Environment and Territory). This document is the culmination of years of work studying every salient aspect of the marshes from Biodiversity to Hydrology and Economic impacts. The document will be presented to the Iraqi government to inform future decisions on the marshes. As the management and responsibility for the marshes and water resources transition to the Iraqi government there is a need to keep the benefits of marsh restoration in the forefront.

Also reported was an Regional Environmental Roundtable which brought together NGOs from Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon in September. They discussed the need for training in a number of areas to build their capacity to carry out their respective projects. This is where I think more International Environmental Groups and Educational Institutions can have a real positive impact. I perceive some prominent groups only want to support development in Iraq in the theoretical, not practical sense. Perhaps there is an attitude that participating in Iraq would somehow add legitimacy to the military/political conflict which they opposed so strenuously. If this is true, it is morally bankrupt thinking. Making positive change and building civil society should take primacy over political posturing. I encourage both individuals and organizations to contribute as they can. Iraq Nature counts 35 environmental NGOs in Iraq!

The areas of need are:
1. Strategic Planning
2. Administrative and Management Skills
3. Capacity building for environmental impact assessments/evaluations
4. Advocacy Skills

Ideally, training should happen locally, since it allows the greatest number of people to participate. Several workshops have been held regionally, such as in Jordan or Syria.

Finally a field report from the Canada-Iraq Marshland Initiative is written up in the Nature Iraq Newsletter. Ecological surveys of major reflooded areas have been conducted by 6 teams, comprising 44 students and technical advisors from Central and Southern Iraq. Major groups surveyed include phytoplankton, zooplankton, benthic invertebrates, plants, fish and birds. Early indications are that some reflooded areas are showing signs of full recovery. Nearly all the rare and endangered birds have been found and some have been found breeding. I've heard through other channels that African Darter, Sacred Ibis, Goliath Heron and Basra Reed Warbler have all been seen.

I put up a new page on the Iraq Fauna Wiki to brainstorm on ideas to support Iraqi organizations working on environmental issues.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Don't wait for the Movie

I want to let people know that I have a small book coming out May 1st based on some of my in-country entries from Iraq and Kuwait. The book is called Birding Babylon - A soldiers journal from Iraq. Its a collection of entries from this blog as well as a systematic list at the end. While not my magnum opus, it is nice to have something that might encourage a bit more interest in Iraq's natural history. The book is published by the Sierra Club and the University of California Press and is available online from the publishers and most major book sites. I'd like to thank Diana Landau and Orli Cotel from Sierra club who have worked hard on this project. I'd also like to thank Flemming Ulrich, a Danish Soldier and birder who allowed the use of his Blue-cheeked Bee-eater photo from Camp Eden, Iraq to be used on the cover.

About a week ago I went down to the Hackensack River in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. I met John Seabrook from the New Yorker magazine, who is writing a story on the book and my time in Iraq. We paddled around the marshes with a couple folks from Hackensack Riverkeeper, an environmental organization dedicated to protecting the river. We saw a few birds that I also saw in Iraq including a Moorhen, flying off into the marsh. The article should be out in Monday's edition of the New Yorker.

Last weekend I gave a talk at an Army Medical conference about human-wildlife interactions in Iraq from the Paleolithic domestication of the dog in northern Iraq to the bounceback of the southern Marshes today. It was a bit on the rough side but I'll be working on the brief to smooth it out a bit. I recently stumbled on the UNEP Iraqi Marshland Observation System. Each week they take imagery of the southern Marshes to chart the progress of reflooding and vegetation growth. Last week they measured the vegetation at 58% of historical levels. In March 2003 the Marshes were only 7% of their historical size.

Finally, I've started a new project called IraqFauna. It uses the collaborative Wiki model which allows anyone to edit and (hopefully) add to the contents. I have a number of goals for the site. One is to aggregate information on Iraq's animal biodiversity and stimulate interest for people inside and outside Iraq. I've posted my systematic list of birds I saw in Iraq and will start expanding the list with other people's sightings as soon as I'm done formating mine. I also put a page up on the Iraq Bioblitz Project, which I hope can move forward.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Bird Observations in Camp Victory/Baghdad Airport Area Oct 2005-February 2006

I've mentioned Joe H, an American birder who arrived in Iraq in October to work with the military. He's done a great service by providing monthly updates of his sightings while working at the large base complex near the Baghdad International Airport. If you are a military birder, its a good place to be stationed with a mix of several large lakes, scrub areas, some palm and eucalyptus trees, and reed-lined canals. I saw several great birds at Camp Victory, Camp Liberty and some of the smaller camps close-by including one of my favorites, the blue-cheeked bee-eaters which were fledging young next to one of Saddam's unfinished palaces - humorously named - Victory over America Palace.

Joe's tour came to an end at the end of February. He reports that during his stay he listed 64 species, of which 48 were lifers. Reading his posts will give you an excellent list of what to look out for during the late fall and winter. There are a few differences with what I saw a year earlier at LSA Anaconda around 50 miles north. Joe saw a better variety of ducks than I did including several species that I didn't see including Common Pochard, Red-crested Pochard and Gadwall. Like at Anaconda Northern Shovelers were sometimes seen in large flocks. I also had the impression while I was there that Anaconda had more rooks and jackdaws during the winter. Our nightly, noisy invasion of rooks with some jackdaws mixed in may have been because we were within a few hundred meters of a good size date palm grove where the birds would roost. Joe also saw a Blue Rock Thrush and some other birds I would have liked to see such as common kingfisher, skylark, marsh warbler and little bittern.

Read all his updates over at BirdForum.

To Joe - Thanks for your service and thanks for sharing your sightings.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Bird Flu Outbreak - Iraq

I've meant to write about bird flu for some time now. When the outbreak in Turkey started in January I had a renewed impetus however my schedule has been all enveloping since the beginning of the year. Because of it's importance both in terms of human health as well as potential impacts on wild bird populations I will devote some time to this topic. This is a significant departure to my usual posts on Iraqi natural history.

With two confirmed deaths, several more reported including one from outside of the Kurdish region there is sufficient evidence that certain precautionary measures should be taken including the slaughter of flocks in areas where bird or human infections have been confirmed and people changing behaviors to limit contact with domestic or wild birds such as the use of a mask when tending flocks in areas where no cull has been ordered and stopping all activities like hunting where a person might handle dead birds.

The large scale cull of poultry will cause significant hardship for those who rely on small subsistence flocks of poultry for food. It will also put a strain on the commercial poultry and egg producers.

The main message is to avoid close contact with domestic or wild birds. Most cases to date of Avian Influenza H5N1 have been associated with this risk factor, especially handling birds that are sick or dead. I'll pull together as much useful information as I can for those on the ground. Worldwide there has been no evidence of widespread person-to-person contact. In January the human disease broke out of East and Southeast Asia when human cases started to be reported from Turkey. Several viral mutations noted in the Turkish outbreak are cause for concern and might make the virus more adapted to humans.

I don't claim to be a world expert on bird flu, however my civilian job involves keeping an eye on emerging infectious diseases and how they could potentially affect human health. I write this only to note that keeping an eye on these types of diseases are part of my job and I have closely followed the sporadic outbreaks since 1997 when the first cases of Avian flu were identified in Hong Kong. I wrote my first threat assessment 8 years ago.
All opinions expressed are mine not those of the the Department of Defense or any other agency and are base solely on open source material.

If H5N1 were to remain static as it exists today, most people would have little or no reason to be concerned about a virus that spreads from bird to people less than 200 times in the last 9 years out of tens of millions of potential contacts during that period. If it remains the same, bird flu will be a rare disease in humans that causes huge agricultural losses and has a significant impact on some wild bird species. We can pray that this happens, however we cannot afford to assume it. Bird Flu today is simply a potential source of the next Influenza pandemic that is currently causing massive problems among poultry.

Avian Influenza Viruses are common pathogens in a variety of bird species including domestic birds. Humans with close contact with infected birds very rarely were infected and the result was often a mild disease like conjunctivitis.

In 1997 something alarming happened that told the world there was a potential problem with global implications. Avian Influenza viruses in the H5 subgroup (named after a surface protein) were known to cause mild disease in poultry (ruffled feathers, decreased egg production). In March 1997, in Hong Kong, one particular strain designated H5N1 broke out in a new and lethal form in several farms involving several thousand birds. The first H5N1 Avian Flu Virus actually was first isolated in Scotland in 1959, the first Asian isolate was in Guangdong Province, China in 1996. Chickens with the new Highly Pathogenic H5N1 had a mortality rate approaching 100%. More alarming was that 18 people were infected with this highly pathogenic form, of whom 6 patients died.

All the dots were not connected until August of 1997 after labs subtyped the virus from a human case and found it closely related to those from the bird outbreak. The Hong Kong government considered the single case in May as an isolated case because no other H5N1 cases in humans had been reported during the summer. As a precaution the government increased influenza surveillence and began testing suspected Influenza cases.

In November, after a 6 month hiatus, H5N1 reappeared with a single case. The first two weeks of December brought 6 confirmed cases, then 7 more in the next few weeks. There was a fear that because the normal Hong Kong Flu season was starting there was a potential for the bird flu virus to recombine with a human flu virus in a patient with both infections to produce a more transmissible version of bird flu. A serious concern was that most patients died of a primary viral pneumonia and had no underlying condition or disease that should make them more susceptible to a respiratory virus. Most cases of pneumonia in Influenza patients are caused by a secondary infection caused by bacteria. The secondary infection can often be treated with antibiotics, a primary viral infection cannot be treated with antibiotics. The few children who were infected had mortality rate of around 20% while those over 17 years of age approached 60%. Most cases reported close contact, at farm or market, with poultry in the 24 hours prior to the onset of symptoms.

This set off alarm bells in the places like the World Health Organization and The Centers for Disease Control. In the last century the emergence of a novel Influenza virus has caused several pandemics of varying power. The one that everyone was thinking about was the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 to 1920. Worldwide an estimated 20 to 40 million people died, no one really knows for sure but it may have been much higher with many cases in the developing world. In the US a new contagious disease with a high case fatality rate is of concern, when it is Influenza there is a potential for a global epidemic or pandemic. The good news was that there was little evidence of the nightmare scenario, namely that the disease was spreading person to person through microscopic droplets containing the virus that get suspended in the air when a person coughs or sneezes. The bad news is that Influenza can rapidly mutate and there was a potential for a mutation that allowed efficient person to person spread.

In December 1997 someone in Hong Kong was thinking clearly and ordered something drastic and apparently effective. In 3 days all of Hong Kong's domestic poultry (chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys) were slaughtered. It ended up being 1.6 million birds. The outbreak was contained with no further infections of H5N1. Many believed the world dodged a bullet because there was evidence that the virus was mutating. Hong Kong may have been the best place for the outbreak to have happened. It combined a limited geographic area with access to modern medicine and perhaps most importantly a government that jumped on the problem once it was identified and acted rationally and decisively. The warning of Hong Kong 1997 was that it took a long time to identify what was happening.

I remember attending the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Disease in Atlanta in 1998. At this inaugural meeting of physicians, researchers, and government officials concerned with emerging diseases I heard about the H5N1 outbreak from some scientists from Hong Kong. The mass cull of all of Hong Kong's birds had happened three months earlier. It appeared that the outbreak had been stopped. There was more movement on preparing for an Influenza pandemic including better surveillance mechanisms to try to cut the gap seen in Hong Kong because their labs couldn't type the virus. I think in many people's mind was the idea that somewhere in East Asia H5N1 or some other virus circulating at low levels would break out and start another human epidemic. Next time, I thought, we might not be so lucky, the government might not be so quick or eager to act. I thought interior China would be a good place to demonstrate the statement "How bad can it get before anyone notices". A local government might have a number of reasons to conceal the beginning of an epidemic, the national government might also have their reasons.

H5N1 disappeared from the scene only to emerge again in Hong Kong in 2003 in a family that had recently travelled to southern China. Everyone suspected H5N1 was still circulating somewhere on the mainland. In 2004 cases began to pop up in Vietnam. A gigantic epidemic was in progress among domestic birds with hundreds of outbreaks in the country. During 2004 and 2004 outbreaks of H5N1 showed up in Cambodia, Thailand, China and Indonesia.

Migratory birds have been implicated in the spread of the virus. Most species that have been infected either breed near water or farmland close to human habitation, scavenge near farms like magpies and crows or are kept in captivity like falcons and some songbirds. Some people argue that wild birds are a small part of the story with movements of domestic poultry as the biggest culprit. High amounts of the virus are shed in the feces and may be a mechanism that domestic birds are infected by wild ones and perhaps, more likely, vice versa. There is some evidence that H5N1 is primarily an infection of the gastrointestinal tract in birds. There has been at least 1 human case where there were no respiratory symptoms, only severe diarrhea.

Until January of 2006, Human cases of Bird Flu were confined to East and Southeast Asia. That changed with an outbreak in Turkey that started in January 2006. A widespread epidemic among poultry that had been brewing for several months led to over 20 reported human cases in the space of 2 weeks with 4 deaths. Only 12 cases have been confirmed by the WHO lab. Turkey apparently arrested the epidemic in humans with a massive cull of over 10 million domestic birds. An outbreak of another strain of Avian Influenza in the Netherlands in 2003 resulted in a monster cull of 30 million birds. All but 1 of 53 reported outbreaks in Turkey were in backyard flocks. There was a single outbreak in a commercial flock. The lessons of both Hong Kong and Turkey should be clear. The way to control bird flu is to take the extreme measure of killing all poultry in the outbreak area.

Current Situation in Iraq
In January the first human case of Avian Influenza H5N1 appeared in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq near the city of Suleimaniyah. This was the first instance of bird flu appearing in humans before disease had been reported in birds. Usually birds are the sentinels. In Hong Kong flocks of hundreds of birds suddenly died. Some confusion followed as the government announced that the death was not caused by bird flu. They may have just been buying time. The doctors thought otherwise and sent a sample to the US Naval Medical Research Unit in Cairo. The lab came up with a positive test result for H5N1 and a WHO affiliated lab later confirmed the result. The initial case's 39 year old uncle was later confirmed as the second case. He died on January 27th, 9 days after falling ill. Both cases lived in the same house and were exposed to sick birds. Two outbreaks were officially reported from the area involving 450 dead birds in one flock and 200 in another. Another 2500 birds were reported destroyed in the two flocks with H5 Avian Influenza. The report also speaks of "huge numbers of birds" killed in the area near the Turkish border after Turkey reported bird flu in their border area. Iran reportedly also culled flocks within 15km of the Turkish border. In Iraq there are innumerable backyard flocks of chickens, Turkeys, Ducks and Geese - all which have been affected in other outbreaks and could transmit the disease to humans under the right conditions.

Soon after, there were reports of bird cases in the southern province of Missan near Amara. Amara is near the southern marshes and several hundred miles south of Suleimaniyah. Some have theorized that the birds may have aquired the infection from migrating birds wintering in the marshes. Two pigeons tested for an H5 subtype avian influenza which initiated a cull of almost 1000 birds. There was a report of a death of a young pigeon seller, however, as far as I am aware all human samples from this area have tested negative for H5N1.

Turkey had complained for almost a month that countries surrounding them were ignoring bird flu, even while it raged mere miles from its international borders with countries like Iraq, Iran, Syria and Azerbaijan. The outbreak in Iraq proved their point.

After the first cases were announced a large cull started in the villages surrounding the human cases. As of February 19th the Iraqi Ministry of health reported that 1.5 million poultry have been killed in 2 provinces with over 500 people involve in the effort to contain bird flu. There are over 20 suspected human cases, though only two have been confirmed.

In the last three weeks over a dozen additional countries have reported H5N1 cases in birds. In Nigeria it has been in Chickens, in Europe and Iran it has been in wild waterfowl. As cases proliferate the danger of further human cases also increases. The real danger is that the virus mutates into a form that makes it more transmissible to humans and, more importantly, between humans.

Here's some suggestions based on what we know about the spread of the disease.

1. Limit poultry/wild bird contact

In Iraq and around the world, those most at risk for human disease are owners of poultry flocks that can interact with wild birds. In the case of ducks and geese, it is common for wild ducks to visit outdoor flocks. Other birds like crows and sparrows frequently enter poultry enclosures to eat the domestic bird's food. Several European countries have recognised this particular risk and ordered flocks moved indoors. In England the Ravens at the Tower of London have been moved inside as a protective measure. Even though there have been a number of outbreaks in large intensive poultry farms, the workers at these farms don't seem to be at high risk for infection.

For the average urban Iraqi in Mosul, Baghdad or Basra the risk of bird flu in its current form is negligible and should not be high on their priority list of risks. The same is true for most foreign military and civilian personnel who generally are not exposed to or eat local poultry. Should bird flu mutate into a highly transmissible disease among people (like the standard Influenza A) all bets are off as a pandemic develops worldwide.

For those most at risk, recognizing that a dead bird could be a risk to their health will go a long way. Quick treatment for H5N1 infection is also important. It is generally true that the quicker the patient is treated the better the outcome. Getting appropriate antivirals like Tamiflu within 48 hours of symptoms is very important. In human disease if left too long the damage cannot be undone with drugs.

If I had a flock outside the outbreak area, I would keep a close eye out for symptoms in the birds like plumetting egg production or edema in the face and comb. If something happened like in other outbreaks such as dozens or hundreds of my birds are dead one morning, I would be very concerned and would not go poking around the remaining birds. I would report the incident as soon as I could. If I started feeling ill with respiratory or flu like illness I would go to the nearest significant size hospital and let them know my recent history.

I know in each step there are many barriers, however this is an idealized case.

Recognize sick birds/don't handle sick or dead birds.
Educating people about watching out for sick birds and properly disposing of them is an important step. Most cases of bird flu in humans came in contact with a sick bird either in a bird market or at home. A more insidious problem is when sick birds are slaughtered and sold in the market. These carcasses could be sources of infection. A good step, which could involve coalition military resources, would to be to produce a simple 1 page factsheet that describes what to look for and what to do if a person suspects their birds are dying of bird flu. Put it on the internet, print it in the papers, put it on TV, send people around to the villages. Stress that people will be compensated and that they have an important role to play in fighting the disease. Also stress that by employing culls, nearby Turkey has controlled the disease for now.
Reports of people hiding birds or slaughtering and eating them before the cull need to be addressed with proper education and appropriate compensation.

3. If possible - leave the culling of flocks to appropriately equipped workers.
There is some evidence that improper culling of infected flocks has led to human cases. The messy physical nature of the cull, coupled with close contact is a recipe for disaster. Workers need protective gear, at a minimum respiratory protection, gloves and impermeable coveralls. Here again, perhaps coalition military personnel could assist in transportation of teams to remote areas or provide some other logistic help like the aquisition of protective gear.

A useful document is available on the OIE website
Guidelines for the Killing of Animals for Disease Control Purposes - Appendix 3.7.6. of the OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code 2005

The WHO has suggested a few other things for people involved in the cull of infected birds. They recommend that they be vaccinated with the current influenza vaccine. The purpose of this is to minimize the risk that they be infected with a human Influenza A virus and bird flu at the same time. This might allow the reassortment of genes creating a more dangerous bird flu. The current vaccine does not protect against H5N1. These workers should also be screened and monitored for flu-like illness or conjunctivitis and blood tests should be taken to test for exposure to H5N1 virus.

4. Limit close contact with wild birds
I have read reports that the Iraqi government has banned bird hunting throughout the country. This is easier said than done. Bird hunting is sometimes a subsistence level activity and waterfowl as well as shorebirds and gamebirds such as quail and francolin are hunted throughout the country. I have no data on this but I would rank migratory waterbirds higher on the risk scale than resident landbirds such as francolins. There are no clearcut human cases associated with wild birds, but it remains a possibility.

5. Ban movement of poultry over international borders and within the country
The movement of poultry, especially Chickens has played a major part in the global spread of H5N1. It is interesting that both Japan and South Korea have not experienced additional H5N1 outbreaks since instituting strict bans on the import of poultry. Someone recently said that globalization had made the chicken the world's #1 migratory bird. This is not an understatement. China alone has over 9 billion chickens. Chickens move in huge numbers all around the world through trade. We don't know but this may have played a role in both the Turkish and Nigerian outbreaks. Chickens bred in China were sold in Turkey and apparently Nigeria gets many of its commercial chickens from Turkey. It is possible that bird flu has spread more by chickens and that wild birds were infected by domestic poultry.

6. Begin active surveillance for H5N1 in poultry, wild birds and people.
Active surveillance means trying to find the disease by looking for and testing sick birds, more testing of people with respiratory symptoms, random testing of waterfowl, etc. It serves two purposes. First you get a better handle on the extent of the outbreak and can make more informed statements about risk. The second is that it makes the public more confident that the people in charge are actively doing something instead of just reacting to uncontrollable events. A specific application might be intensive testing of commercial egg laying flocks. An active surveillance program might preserve the viability of parts of the poultry industry by ensuring the flocks are safe and the products they produce won't harm the public.

7. Consider vaccination for village and backyard flocks
This option was previously discounted because in some cases a bird can still shed virus, even though they might not show symptoms. The thinking is evolving and some have advocated vaccination because culling is sometimes impractical because chickens are the main source of protein in some areas. The Dutch are now requesting to vaccinate their flocks because of their experience in 2003 with a gigantic cull of 30 million birds and the attending economic fallout. Application of such a plan would be in the realm of the poultry experts.

Here's some online resources on Avian Influenza
Centers for Disease Control
World Health Organization
OIE (World Animal Health Organization)

Ok, that's all I'm going to write for now. I'll update this post as warranted and cross-post on the bird flu site. My next post on Birding Babylon will be on a cheerier note.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Falconry in Iraq

Dave, who has a relative serving in Iraq sent me a picture of a falcon from the Mosul area. An Army unit bought this falcon for a local man. He came and gave a demonstration for some of the soldiers. I think it's a Lanner Falcon (Falco biarmicus) but its hard to tell from the angle. The other possibility with those breast markings is a Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug). Let me know if you can give a more definitive ID. (Click on the picture to enlarge.)

Falconry is a very popular sport, especially in the Emirates and some of the other gulf states. It is associated with the traditional Arab way of life. According to Arabian tradition the birds would be released into the wild at the end of hunting season. This tradition has been continued for the last 11 years in Pakistan where birds from the Gulf States are released. In modern times people kept the best falcons year after year. In northern Iraq the sport is said to have been practiced for 2000 years. Some studies put the origins of falconry in the remote past. Each winter, wealthy Arabs travel places like Kazhakstan and Pakistan to fly their birds. This year, because of bird flu the hunters are sticking closer to home and hunting in Iran and North Africa. One of the favorite prey is the Houbara Bustard, a bird that is actually bred in the Emirates to try to replentish falling populations.

Many species of Falcons such as the Saker, Perigrine and Gyrfalcon are protected species and a black market has developed. A wealthy hunter may pay incredibe amounts (up to $40,000 dollars) for a bird that might have been trapped in Russia or hatched from eggs taken from the wild. Because of their investment owners spend lots of money taking care of the bird's health. Bahrain and Dubai even have Falcon hospitals.

In the past some falcons in Iraq were captured in the Sinjar Hills in northern Iraq. Many are also caught in China and Pakistan and sent to the Gulf Region. To try to deter the illegal trade the UAE has started a passport program for Falcons to try to track the legitimate birds entering the country. Now with bird flu there is concern that infected birds may come from the affected countries.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Birds of Iraq: Pelicans

Many people think of Iraq as all desert. While true in parts of the south and Al Anbar province, Iraq is known for its water. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers have historically fed the large marshlands in the southern part of the country near Basra, Nasiriyah and Qurnah, the traditional site of the garden of Eden. Smaller marshes near Fallujah and Ramadi as well as lakes scattered around the country provide excellent habitat for wintering waterbirds.

Three species of Pelican are listed as being recorded in Iraq. Two are regular visitors and 1 is a vagrant.

Pink-backed Pelican - Apparently a rare visitor from its southern breeding grounds in the Red Sea and Africa. Even though this is one of the smallest pelican species it still has a wingspan of 8 feet.

Great White Pelican - A winter visitor to the marshes and lakes of Iraq. A high count of over 1200 birds was recorded at
Haur Al Hammar Marsh near Amara in the southern part of Iraq in censuses in the late 1970's.

Dalmatian Pelican
- A rare winter visitor to similar areas as the Great White Pelican. The high count at Haur Al Hammar was 81 birds, again in the 1970's.