On the burning of the birds: “we just did our job”

Leonilo Rivera, chief of PAWB Southeastern Mindanao admitted they did not test the stock if it was positive of the H5N1-strain of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) before exposing them to carbon dioxide and burning them using government incinerators.

He told MindaNews in an interview Thursday that the country's rules against the spread of Avian flu is really strict and does not provide for testing first before disposal of confiscated stock from an Avian flu-infected country like Indonesia.

Rivera referred MindaNews to Dr. Rafael Mercado, chief of the region's livestock division at the Department of Agriculture who is the Mindanao coordinator of the task force, but the latter could not be reached through his cellular phone.

Mercado, as quoted by Rivera in his report to the national office of the DENR used as basis DA's Memorandum Order 9 signed by then Agriculture Sec. Luis P. Lorenzo Jr. in March 2004.

The order banned and provided for immediate disposal of the domestic and wild birds from 10 Asian countries including Indonesia.

Rivera said among the vital reasons the DA cited in its decision to destroy the wildlife stock was to protect the P26-billion livestock industry in the country.

In a commentary e-mailed to MindaNews on July 11, Stewart Metz, MD, director of the Indonesian Parrot Project,  said authorities may be “justifiably proud of their record to keep the Philippines free of ‘bird flu’” but “serious scientific and ethical questions remain as to whether the mass slaughter of such birds plays any useful role in such preventive measures.”

Metz said that if operatives took months to do surveillance of the areas, “therefore, there was more than adequate time to have proper test kits available in advance. Were these birds tested for HPAI(Highly pathogenic avian influenza) before they were slaughtered?  Perhaps officials of PAWB and Excel Hernandez of the NBI will answer that simple question.”

Metz also said “If one is going to kill these birds, one cannot imagine a more inhumane, brutal and uncivilized way to do it than burning. Were these birds anesthetized before slaughter? If not, this violates the veterinary code of most civilized countries.”

“Many of these birds, such as cockatoos and parrots, are extremely intelligent–they are sentient, they feel pain and are capable of suffering. They merit a fate better than burning .In fact, the very immolation of these birds sets back conservation efforts predicated on changing attitudes about the value of wildlife–since the government treated these birds as poorly  or even worse than smugglers,” he said.

Metz acknowledged that while it is critical to protect the citizens of the Philippines from HPAI, the cause of bio-security is never furthered by hasty decision-making, and mere expediency. “These birds could have been quarantined and tested, and if not infected, perhaps could have been repatriated to Indonesia to a wildlife rehabilitation center,” he said.  

Rivera said they are prepared to face the international community’s criticisms but stressed they were doing their job according to their mandate and with the safety of the citizens as priority.

He said the DA manned the disposal with Mercado giving the destroy order even if the stock at hand were wildlife supposedly under PAWB.

He said the DA did this because of the ban on entry of birds to the country and because Indonesia is an AI infected country.

He said under normal circumstances, if the stock did not come from an infected country, he would have decided against the decimation until proven the stock was infected.

"But because Indonesia is an infected country, DA's order prevails for the sake of the welfare of the general public," Rivera said.

Rivera said his message to the Indonesian Parrot Project is, “if you really are concerned, call the attention of the Indonesian government to look at the plight of the wild birds in the archipelago."

"It is when they have problems with their (wild and domestic) birds there, that we will also have problems here in Mindanao," he said. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)