How Avian Influenza Has Transformed The Chinese Tradition Of Bird-Keeping
The Bird Garden and its surrounding markets provided the perfect environment for the H5N1 virus to spread rapidly - Photo by Evelyn H. Tu
Hong Kong's 'Bird Garden' was one of the more unusual and special attractions of the city's sprawling market-filled streets of the Mongkok district, for visitors, and locals, alike.
But the detection of the H5N1 virus in a migratory bird on sale at the market transformed the 'Bird Garden' overnight. Now it's all but shut down. Health officials have banned the sale of birds. Without the loud shrieks and songs of thousand of birds, and the lively chatter of those seeking a bargain, the 'Bird Garden' has lost its voice and its energy.
But the transformation of the 'Bird Garden' is only one sign of how the avian influenza virus has changed centuries old relationship between the Chinese and the once immensely popular hobby, and trade, of bird-keeping, breeding and selling :
Government workers dressed in surgical masks and suits disinfect the area daily and health officials are checking for signs of disease among hundreds of birds left in the market.
Vendors fear Hong Kong's latest H5N1 outbreak could herald an end to what was a colorful, lively age-old trade, already hit hard since 1997 when the virus made its first known jump to humans, killing six people in Hong Kong.
The virus's appearance a decade ago dampened enthusiasm in Hong Kong for the Chinese tradition of keeping birds. The latest outbreak at the market, the main source of birds for Hong Kong residents, may prompt more bird owners to get rid of their pets.
Bird raising in China dates back to the 17th century, when Manchu nomads conquered Beijing, founded the Qing dynasty and introduced their obsession with these winged creatures.
Freed from the drudgery of work, the newly rich elite spent their days in tea houses showing off their exotic birds.
The hobby has lived on in Hong Kong and some elderly men continue to congregate each morning around dawn in parks, so that their pets can sing along with other birds.
But repeated outbreaks of H5N1 in Hong Kong in poultry since 1997 have led some bird lovers to release their pets, especially after the government warned against kissing pet birds in 2005.
Large numbers of birds are still bought for release into the wild, especially by Buddhists who believe they will benefit in their next lives by giving freedom to living creatures.
"Many people have given up their hobby, released their birds," said Tan, the feed seller.
"Now with this, there will be no recovery. I could hardly make ends meet even before this. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here," said Tan, pointing at his eight pet birds in ornate Chinese bird cages.
The daurian starling bird found with H5N1 last week was left at a market stall by its owner. Health officials discovered it was infected during routine testing of bird fecal samples.
The starling -- a migratory bird that breeds in China and Mongolia and migrates to South and Southeast Asia in the winter -- had no health certificate, raising suspicion it might have been smuggled or illegally captured.
The government has no plan to shut the bird market permanently, but stallholders seem to think it's inevitable as the demand for live birds continues to plummet because of health fears.
"Business was already thin ... Before last week, we were only making around HK$350 (US$45) a day. Now we make nothing at all. I don't see any hope for us," said Mr. Chan, a feed seller.