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A wing and a prayer

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Expert says Buddhist bird release may pose health risks

For many Buddhists the practice of purchasing caged birds to set free is a time-honored

tradition - a way to earn celestial merit and ward off danger. But a wildlife expert

says the thousands of cooped-up birds awaiting redemption along the banks of the

Tonle Sap may represent a grave public health concern.

Birds await redemption on the Tonle Sap waterfront. For less than 2000 riel they can be bought and freed. But many are exhausted by their confinement and some die soon after their release.

According to Martin Gilbert, Field Veterinarian for the Wildlife Conservation Society

(WCS), the trade in wild birds is exposing Phnom Penh to a deadly mixture of diseases

that could spread to poultry and, eventually, humans.

Birds collected from rural Cambodia are available at market stalls along Phnom Penh's

riverfront area. Among the diseases they may harbor are bird flu, Newcastle disease

and salmonella, Gilbert said.

On major holidays there can be thousands of wild birds of many species concentrated

in a small area. For around 2000 riel they can be bought and released. Many birds

are exhausted by their confinement and some perish shortly after their release, Gilbert

said.

He also said that children have even been seen buying birds to eat raw at the riverfront.

"Avian Influenza H5N1 is on people's minds at present, and wild bird surveillance

has isolated the virus in scaly-breasted munia, the species most commonly sold in

the cages," Gilbert said. The munia is also known as the spice finch.

Gilbert said the bird sellers are constantly resupplied with new birds as their stock

is released, providing a perfect environment for diseases to become rampant.

"A virulent virus in a closed population quickly runs out of susceptible hosts

and so burns itself out," he said. "However, when you continuously feed

new, unexposed birds into the system you are effectively adding more fuel to the

virus.

"The wild bird trade may actively promote the emergence of more virulent viruses."

Bird trader Long Sopha, 47, has been peddling birds since 1980. On most days she

sells between 200 and 300. During Buddhist holy days this number can reach almost

1,000.

"I sell to people who believe that when we free the birds, their dangers are

sent away from them," Sopha said.

"I have heard about bird flu, but I am not concerned. I am careful. I have never

been sick."

An official from the Ministry of Agriculture said the government plans to test all

varieties of birds to see if there is any disease and to seek help in training Cambodian

doctors to identify diseases. But, he said, there is no problem at present.

The sale of wild birds is illegal in Cambodia. Freeing birds to earn merit, however,

is a traditional Khmer Buddhist practice with strong links to the Royal Family, Gilbert

said. Therefore any change would have to come from a shift in the beliefs of the

Khmer community.

The practice is not yet sufficiently monitored, but the WCS hopes to begin testing

within the next few weeks.

"Providing those that promote the practice with information outlining any health

risks posed would enable them to make an informed decision," Gilbert said.

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