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    UN Integrated Regional Information Networks

    February 21, 2006
    Posted to the web February 21, 2006


    As soon as Moussa Diouf saw the bird lying sick on the ground, the young man from a village on the edges of Senegal's giant Djoudj bird reserve, dropped it in a plastic bag and dashed off post-haste to the main rangers' office.

    Diouf was worried the bird might be carrying "the new sickness".

    But the head ranger smiled on opening the bag. "It's a common sparrow which is moulting and has become vulnerable because it can't fly very far," said Major Ibrahima Diop, who heads a squad of 43 rangers working in the Djoudj reserve, a national showcase of 16,000 hectares of low-lying mangrove swamp.

    Situated 60 kilometres north of the major Senegalese city of Saint Louis, the Djoudj reserve straddling the Mauritanian border each year from November to May plays host to some 300,000 birds seeking shelter from the European winter.

    When international health authorities last October warned of the danger of migratory birds spreading the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus, the Senegalese government moved to bolster surveillance in the country's many bird parks.

    Rangers working in the Djoudj reserve visited the seven villages nearby to offer pointers on bird flu and also began an information campaign on avian flu for the 20,000 people who visit the park each year to get a glimpse of its 370 species of birds, as well as hyenas, warthogs, monkeys and crocodiles.

    But monitoring has been intensified since 8 February, when the first cases in Africa of H5N1 were confirmed in Nigeria.

    "Over the past week we have upgraded monitoring to an active phase where we are looking for birds that are possibly sick, or dead, in order not to be caught by surprise," Diop said in an interview.

    So now at dawn each day the 35 rangers take off on patrol in search of sick birds. Armed with telescopes, gloves and freezers and travelling on foot, on bicycles or by boat, they head for the park's four main sites - the swamp where the pelicans nest, the site where the herons have built their nests, the swamp area home to the crocodiles and mammals, and the Great Lake crowded by thousands of migratory birds, including ducks and flamingos.

    Slumped in a motor-boat, binoculars held high, Major Diop travels the park's 10,000 hectares of water watching for trouble but plainly enjoying the sight of the white pelicans' overhead flight, the African cormorants skimming the water surface and the hundreds of noisy white-faced black ducks.

    "There are hundreds of thousands of them," he says, pointing at the big yellow-beaked white pelicans taking in the sun. "I can assure you that if one of them had avian flu, we would know about it. They've been here for three months now!"

    A little after noon, the rangers head to the main office to meet the major and exchange notes.

    "Since the beginning of the migratory season we have found no suspect cases," said Abou Diop, who heads the team patrolling the crocodile-infested area.

    "We're terribly worried by this sickness, because if it comes it will bring many problems, it will stop the tourists from coming and they are our main source of revenue," said the 27-year-old from the nearby village of Diadiam 2, which is 30 kilometres from the centre of the reserve.

    The Djoudj Park, which is co-managed by the national parks authority and the villagers, generates annual revenues of 32 billion CFA francs (US $58 million). Villagers work as volunteer rangers, in the reserve as well as managing a boutique, a campsite, a restaurant and boats to view the birds.

    The rangers have taken on the job of informing the local population about bird flu, about how it is transmitted and how to avoid its spread.

    "We go to visit people who raise poultry and tell them that if they see five or 10 dead chickens then they must use gloves to pick them up and to bring them in," said Abou Diop.

    But Major Diop shrugs aside the threat of an epidemic. "I'm not at all worried about Nigeria because Nigeria is on the eastern flypath that goes through Turkey, Egypt, Chad, Nigeria, whilst we are on the western flypath that passes through Siberia, Spain, Mauritania and Senegal."

    "But one possible problem could crop up next year," he said, "when tropical African birds leave Senegal in late May and fly north to Cameroon and Lake Chad. They could bring the illness on their return."

    [ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]