Sat, Dec 14, 2002 - Page 2 News List

Botulism identified as spoonbill killer

MYSTERY SOLVED The deadly pathogen has been fingered as behind the deaths of 50 of the rare birds, leaving experts relieved that it was not avian flu


Botulism is almost certainly the pathogen behind the recent mass die-off of black-faced spoonbills at a reserve Tainan County, said Council of Agriculture (COA) Chairman Lee Chin-lung (李金龍) said yesterday.

"We are almost certain that the dead rare birds contracted botulism from eating dead fish and shrimps," Lee said.

This initial conclusion has helped ease worries that the mass die-off of the migrant birds might have been caused by avian flu and thus might trigger an epidemic, Lee said.

The College of Veterinary Medicine at National Chung Hsing University has been helping to rescue the sick birds.

Major world wildlife conservation organizations are also expected to send experts to Taiwan in the near future to assist in protecting and conserving the birds, Lee said.

Many of the black-faced spoonbills that spend the winter at the Chiku wild bird sanctuary at the mouth of the Tsengwen River became sick around Dec. 9. As of yesterday, 50 of the endagered species had died. Twelve birds are still sick but are all in a stable condition.

Based on an initial autopsy report, Lee said, a group of animal disease experts, biologists and conservationists had come to a conclusion earlier in the day that the birds had succumbed to botulism after eating dead fish and shrimps.

He said the researchers had ruled out intentional poisoning, pesticide contamination and other viral infections as the pathogen behind the deaths.

The National Institute for Animal Health (NIAH), the Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute (TESRI) and other livestock research bodies are still examining autopsy samples.

"A final investigative report will be available next Monday," Lee said. "By then, we'll have been able to make a definite identification of the pathogen responsible."

Spoonbill facts

* So far 50 black-faced spoonbills have died.

* Twelve birds are still sick, but are in a stable condition.

* A final report will be released on Monday confirming the actual cause of the spoonbill deaths.

* Spoonbills enjoy the southern wetlands of Taiwan during the winter for their relative warmth.

* The birds spend the summer on the Korean Peninsula and in northeastern China

* A record number of 700 spoonbills have arrived so far this year.

Meanwhile, NIAH Director Lin Shih-yuh said he is "99 percent" certain that the dead black-faced spoonbills were victims of botulism.

Quoting the initial autopsy report, Lin said there were small fish and shrimps in the stomachs of the dead birds. Their digestive systems did not show any abnormal symptoms, but laboratory mice injected with a solution made from samples taken from the stomachs of the dead birds all died within hours.

Lin said all the rescued black-faced spoonbills showed symptoms of clostridium bacteria infections. Bacteria of the genus clostridium kill more wild birds each year than any other germ, he added.

Noting that clostridium bacteria exist in carcasses and rotten plants, Lin said he suspects that the food supply at the Chiku wetlands might be insufficient, prompting hungry black-faced spoonbills to eat dead fish and shrimps.

Each year, a large number of the birds from the Korean Peninsula and northeastern China spend the winter at the Chiku wetlands.

A record number of 700 have arrived so far this year, but this is the first time that a number of them have died en masse.

While striving to conserve the species, Lin said, the government should devote efforts to the development of food sources to protect them from falling victim to botulism.

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