Massive wild boar cull targets swine fever

2014-02-11 13:27
Forester Andreas Thiermeyer takes a piece of wild boar meat in Eglharting, near Munich. (Matthias Schrader, AP, file)

Forester Andreas Thiermeyer takes a piece of wild boar meat in Eglharting, near Munich. (Matthias Schrader, AP, file)

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Daugai - In the dead of the bone-chilling Lithuanian winter, a hunter cocks his gun and squints as he takes aim at a wild boar foraging for food 30 paces away.

A sharp crack from the rifle and the prey, a pregnant female, collapses as blood trickles onto the snow.

It's open season on wild boar after Vilnius ordered a record cull amid an outbreak of African swine fever that has prompted Russia to ban pork imports from across the EU.

But there is concern in this Baltic state that killing off 90% of its estimated 60 000 wild boar will upset the delicate balance of the food chain.

"We feel bad about shooting a female carrying babies, but we have to because we know the possible consequences," said Aurimas Trunce, head of a hunting club in southern Lithuania.

African swine fever is harmless to humans but lethal to pigs and has no known cure.

State of emergency

It has spread throughout the Balkans, the Caucasus and Russia since 2007, and is endemic to areas of Africa, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The FAO warns of "vast losses" if it migrates from Russia to China, which is home to half of the world's pigs.

The Lithuanian cull is one of the largest in the world but state veterinary officials in Vilnius say similar measures are now being applied in Belarus and parts of Russia.

They believe the virus crept over the border from neighbouring Belarus and fear it could spread to, and decimate commercial pig farms, triggering a wave of bankruptcies.

"Our agriculture sector will suffer a huge loss if we do not solve this problem," Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius has warned.

An EU member since 2004, Lithuania has also imposed a state of emergency in affected areas, slapping a temporary ban on shipments of live pigs, and is mulling a cull.

Time is of the essence, insist state veterinary officials that are overseeing the six-month cull in the wild ending in June. Come spring, the virus will spread faster as warm weather brings back birds and the mites they bear.

But environmentalists are also sounding the alarm, warning that the massive cull will wreak havoc with the food chain of wildlife populations.

Undesired effects

"They are treating boars here the way homeless dogs are being treated in Sochi, as they are both being totally eliminated," said an angry Andrejus Gaidamavicius, referring to the mass killing of stray dogs in Sochi ahead of the Winter Olympics in Russia.

Stronger animals could also develop an immunity to the virus, the environmentalist added.

"It is outrageous that hunting will also be allowed in nature reserves," Gaidamavicius said.

With wild boars virtually wiped out, predators like wolves will turn to hunting deer and could severely deplete their numbers, experts insist.

EU and UN experts admit excessive hunting could have other undesired effects: It might encourage individual animals to migrate in an effort to escape hunters and thus spread the virus.

In a bid to stop more infected animals migrating from Belarus, Lithuania has also asked Brussels to co-finance a fence along its southern-eastern border.

All wild boar hunted down in the cull will be incinerated if tests show they carry the virus; those not infected could still be used for meat.

Of the nearly 1 500 animals killed in January, only two tested positive for the disease, according to state veterinary officials.

Carrot and stick

The EU has termed Moscow's 29 January import ban of its pork "disproportionate". Russia imports a quarter of the bloc's pork exports, worth around €1.4bn ($1.9bn) annually.

Lithuania has adopted a carrot and stick strategy for the mass cull: It is offering hunters 250 litas ($98) for each carcass, but hunters who refuse to participate risk having their licences suspended.

Environment Minister Valentinas Mazuronis even promised to charm their wives into letting the hunters head for the woods for the weekend.

"I'll write letters to hunters' wives: Don't be angry at your husbands who go hunting Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. We appreciate you letting them go all in a good cause," he said only half-jokingly.
Read more on:    lithuania  |  animals
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