JERUSALEM – Israel is acting to contain a serious bird flu epidemic that has already led to the mass culling of infected poultry and killed around 5,000 migrating cranes in a popular nature reserve in the north of the country.
Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg described the outbreak, identified as H5N1 type, as “one of the worst hits to wildlife in Israel’s history” after a visit to the Hula Nature Reserve this week. Hula is a wetland that is a central stopover on the winter migration route to Africa.
The reserve, usually bustling with bird watchers at this time of year, is temporarily closed to visitors and the Environmental Protection Department said on Wednesday Ms Zandberg was working to suspend the remainder of the season. hunting in the country, which normally takes place until the end of January.
The fear, the ministry said, was that gunfire from bird hunters could cause wild birds to fly away to other places, spreading the disease, which it said could also be spread through car tires. contaminated on hunters’ vehicles or on the soles of their shoes, or by dogs recovering their prey.
Authorities have also warned of the danger of spreading bird flu from animals to humans, which could be fatal. No such case has been recorded in Israel.
The first signs of the epidemic appeared about two months ago, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, with infections popping up in chicken and turkey farms in different parts of the country.
Israel’s Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Oded Forer said about 600,000 chickens had been slaughtered. He said that would mean a shortfall of 15 million eggs per month over the next few months and that the ministry was working to import millions of eggs.
In an interview with Kan Radio, Israel’s public broadcaster on Tuesday, Forer blamed the outdated and overcrowded chicken coops that he said were common in Israel for the severity of the virus outbreak.
The egg industry had been “neglected for years,” he said, adding that most of the chicken coops in Israel looked like those from the 1950s or 1960s, and there was a need to move to larger henhouses. modern without cages.
More than 100,000 cranes may congregate in the Hula Valley during the migration season, which begins in October, according to the reserve, and in recent years many have stayed there until spring, when they return north. . The reserve said around 40,000 cranes were recorded in the valley earlier this month.
In mid-December, the number of dead cranes started to increase and bird flu was identified as the cause. Most of the dead birds were found in the water.
The bird flu outbreak comes as Israel braces for what its Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has called “a storm of infection” due to the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus.