Message of 20040322

Bird research, a matter of national security

This article written by Satoshi Yamagishi was on the Asahi Shimbun, Opinion, Point of VIEW of March 22, 2004.

photo: satoshi yamagishi

With avian flu in the headlines virtually every day, the resultant brouhaha has given rise to a sort of social anxiety. Given this situation, it's no surprise that wild birds, and ducks in particular, are taking the rap for carrying and spreading the viruses that cause the disease-despite the fact that there is no substantial proof they are responsible. I feel sorry for birds, who can't talk back.

It just isn't fair to pin the blame on migratory birds simply because they are, well, sitting ducks. As Japan's only research institution specializing in ornithology, I believe it is our social responsibility to clarify whether they are indeed the true "culprit."

Over the last eight decades, the bird migration research center at our institute has captured, tagged and released a total of nearly 4 million birds of 570 kinds. In recent years, as many as 200,000 birds are being tagged annually.

Currently, the center is mainly focusing on tracking migration routes of birds with the aim of protecting and conserving wild animals under the jurisdiction of the Environment Ministry.

Thanks to advances in high-tech equipment, we are now able to directly track the movements or large migratory birds such as cranes and swans and raptors by satellite by fitting them with transmitters.

Most birds, however, are too small to be fitted with a transmitter, which would weigh them down and make it impossible for them to fly. To track smaller birds, researchers catch and put an identification band on them before releasing them.

These birds must then be recaptured to determine where they were released from in order to plot their migration route. Although the method is very inefficient, it is currently the only option.

Making matters worse, only about 1 percent of the tagged birds are ever recaptured. In other words, information concerning 99 of every 100 birds fitted with a band is virtually wasted.

We must not lose such valuable information. In particular, it is important that we carry out tests on the disease-causing germs migratory birds carry.

Actually, our institute has previously carried out such a survey. Records show that from 1963 to 1971, at the request of a pathological institute of the U.S. armed forces and in conjunction with research organizations from a number of other Asian countries, We looked into the distribution of viruses carried by migratory birds and ticks and other internal and external parasites that mostly live on birds.

Although the study was discontinued, I wish to propose the resumption of such surveys at this crucial juncture. Under the current circumstances, I believe the most realistic method would be for us to take blood samples from birds when we catch and tag them and monitor pathogenic matter in the blood in cooperation with such organizations as the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

In addition to avian flu, the West Nile virus is causing many, deaths in the United States and it is very important also from the standpoint of national health care to study whether migratory birds actually carry such pathogens.

Unfortunately, however, as things now stand, this plan is unlikely to advance without a hitch. For one thing, jurisdiction stands in the way.

As I mentioned earlier, the Environment Ministry alone has jurisdiction over the tagging of birds and it is difficult for it to include pathological research as a purpose of tagging. There are also budgetary concerns, as well as the problem of coordinating research with other governments on the behavior of creatures that travel across national borders.

I urge the government to do away with the sectionalism that prevents the various ministries - environment; heath, labor and welfare; agriculture, forestry and fisheries; and foreign affairs - from working together on a comprehensive emergency project.

The study of migratory birds not only has to do with environmental protection, it must also be positioned as part of the government's national security strategy.