Deadly bird flu threatens Israel's wildlife, triggers hunting ban

The outbreak is 'worst blow to wildlife' in the country's history.

Israel has canceled the final month of its five month-long hunting season in a bid to contain a severe bird flu outbreak that’s killed as many as 8,000 wild cranes and sparked concerns about infection among threatened bird species.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg tweeted in December that this outbreak of the H5N1 bird flu is the “worst blow to wildlife” in Israel’s history and that the full extent of its damage is “still unclear.” 

The January hunting ban will help limit human-wildlife interactions. The ministry says it’s concerned that hunters unwittingly could spread the disease by carrying the virus on their shoes, tires, or via the dogs they use to collect the ducks and pigeons they shoot. Also, other birds disturbed by hunters may fly to new sites, spreading the virus. (The ministry did not respond to requests for comment about if there’s any evidence that hunters already had contributed to spread in these ways.)

H5N1 was first detected at Israeli poultry farms about two months ago and it’s since been confirmed as the cause of death among common cranes, with a fifth of the population of majestic, long-necked birds already infected, according to Israeli authorities.

Each fall, the cranes migrate from Russia, Ukraine, and Scandinavia to wintering grounds in Ethiopia and elsewhere, including Israel, where tens of thousands await the spring, many around a lake in the Hula Valley. There, in the north of the country, workers in hazmat suits have been scooping up the bodies of cranes from the water and surrounding areas.

As with human influenza viruses, there are many strains of avian influenza, some more deadly than others. H5N1 is particularly virulent this season. It has hopscotched across Europe, where thousands of barnacle geese died in Scotland last month, and recently spread to North America.

Avian flu can sicken other animals too, including those that eat infected birds or their remains. To help control its spread in Israel, about a million farmed turkeys, ducks, and hens have been killed, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

People rarely have contracted H5N1, and typically only after lengthy exposure to infected birds. The last reported H5N1 human infection occurred in India in July 2021. So far, no Israeli cases have been detected, but last week, a case in southwestern England was reported to the World Health Organization, although the particular strain still has to be identified. Israeli governmental guidance advises that poultry and eggs are safe to eat if they’re properly cooked.  

The hunting ban is a “preventive measure” to protect both wildlife and people, says Yoav Perlman, the director of BirdLife Israel, an arm of the nonprofit Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. His group has been helping count the thousands of dead cranes. He says a few other wild birds—mostly pelicans, herons, and some raptors—have been confirmed with the virus.

Crane deaths are tapering off, but “we are concerned that avian flu might hit raptors, especially eagles in the Hula Valley and other valleys where cranes concentrate,” Perlman says. Hula Valley is important as a wintering site for globally threatened greater spotted eagles and eastern imperial eagles and for white-tailed eagles, which are threatened in Israel. The eagles are scavengers and have been seen feeding on dead cranes in the Hula Valley, he says.

Other threatened birds at risk in Israel include the endangered white-headed duck, with about 10 percent of its global population passing the winter in Israel at reservoirs also used by cranes and other waterbirds, according to Perlman. Also, he says, the globally threatened MacQueen’s bustard shares foraging and roosting sites with cranes in the northern Negev.

Origins of the deadly virus

The H5N1 virus was first detected in 1996, in geese in China, and in humans in 1997 during a poultry outbreak in Hong Kong. In subsequent years, it’s been found in many countries around the world, showing up in Israel in March 2006, where it’s occurred almost every year since. The current outbreak is different, Israeli officials say, because it’s causing massive mortality rates among infected birds.

“No one knows why this time it’s so severe,” says ornithologist Yossi Leshem, a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University. Humans may have helped fuel some of the transmission, he says. As part of a government bird feeding program designed to keep the cranes from eating farmers’ crops, workers put out corn for them, causing dense concentrations of the birds in a small area. “It almost certainly increased the infection rates of this avian flu outbreak,” Perlman adds.

For the future, Perlman says, “relevant conservation authorities and stakeholders will need to think hard about the feeding and the role of feeding.” But for now, they’re watching for further signs of H5N1. “This is by far the largest avian influenza event in cranes globally,” he says. It’s “unprecedented, and we need to investigate what happened.”

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.


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