An outbreak of bird flu has killed more than 5,000 wild cranes – including 2,000 in less than a week! – in a reserve in northern Israel. Every year, cases are recorded on the shores of Lake Hula. But in 2021, the toll is unusually high for seasonal flu according to the authorities of the parks concerned. In addition to 5,000 dead, 10,000 birds are estimated to be infected, according to Ohad Hatsofe, a specialist for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
The virus affects Israel every year, but this year the epidemic is much larger than in previous years, as explained by Uri Naveh, the Authority’s senior scientist. More than 5,200 cranes died, an “exceptional” figure according to the scientist. The epidemic is spreading in the Hula nature reserve, in the north of the country between the Lebanese mountains and Naftali. The Hula Valley is part of the route taken by the 500,000 Common Cranes that migrate annually.
Thousands of them stop because the shallow lake allows them to rest there before continuing their journey to the heat of Africa to breed there from March. Each year, it is estimated that more than 40,000 cranes stop over in this valley. Carcasses are collected by forest rangers in protective suits to prevent other birds from being contaminated with H5N1. “This is the worst blow to wildlife in the country’s history,” Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg tweeted.
Bird flu, which is ravaging the crane population, has also been detected in some chicken populations, still in the north of the country, Israel’s agriculture ministry said. The government therefore decided to suspend sales of eggs from farms affected by the H5N1 virus. Local media are talking about half a million laying hens – from a farm just a few miles from the lake – slaughtered to limit the spread of the virus.
It is rare for bird flu to spread to humans, but there have been epidemics in the past. So far, no case of transmission to humans has been identified. But the Israeli Authority remains cautious and warns the population because this flu “can be dangerous if it is contracted by humans”. And H5N1 “is fatal for 36 to 50% of those infected,” said Ohad Hatsofe. The World Health Organization estimates that this virus has killed 450 people since 2003, mainly in Indonesia, Egypt and Vietnam.