Wild animals facing disease is nothing new, nor is the idea of a human-led mass animal slaughter in order to stop the further spread of such diseases. But this could be the first time that a major national protest has led to a government retracting on such reported plans. Or at least claiming to.
Recently news outlets in Warsaw, Poland, reported official plans to eliminate singulars of wild boar in order to stop an outbreak of African swine fever (ASF) among the farm pigs there. According to The Republic, veterinary and farming officials helped to approve the cull, which would involve the deaths of roughly 185,000 wild boar—including pregnant sows. In order to “speed up” the process, the outlet claims the government asked licensed hunters to target and kill boars during weekends in January, opening up laws to include pregnant animals and those in otherwise protected areas.
In the days that followed, more than 450,000 people signed a petition to stop the cull, and more than 800 Polish academics signed an open letter to Prime Minister Mateusz Marawiecki demanding alternative action. Meanwhile, protestors also showed up outside the parliament building in Warsaw with placards, and thousands of people changed their Facebook profile pictures to wild boars.
Since then environment minister Henry Kowalczyk has called the cull a misunderstanding, and said that no order to wipe out the population had officially been given.
“No order was given to eliminate wild boar, the (hunting) plan was drawn up like every year,” he told the commercial broadcaster TVN, pointing out that Poland’s PZL hunting union had killed 168,000 wild boar since last April, which is in line with its quota of 185,000 boar for the 2018-19 season and comparable to the 308,000 kills in the 2017-18 season and the 282,000 kills in the 2016-17 season.
What is ASF?
ASF is a highly contagious viral disease among swine and has been linked to production and economic loses. Some symptoms include vomiting and diarrehea and the inability to stand, along with loss of appetite and a high fever. There is no treatment or approved vaccination against ASF, and it can have a 100 per cent mortality rate in certain cases. According to the World Organization for Animal Health it can be spread by live or dead pigs, insects like ticks, or through contaminated feed and fomites (objects like shoes, knives, or equipment).
The disease can also live for several months in processed meat products and for years once those products have been frozen. That has led to a concern in cross-border transmission in recent years, as instances of ASF have moved from historical outbreaks in Africa into multiple countries across Africa, Asia, and Europe. In 2018 there were more than 360,000 cases of ASF across 19 countries, with Romania and Russia heading up the pack.
A danger to humans?
ASF doesn’t affect human health, although the former head of the Russian epidemiology service, Dr. Gennady Onishchenko, warns that because pigs and humans share a similar physiology, future ASF mutations could potentially become dangerous to human beings.
“If we take into account the fact that pig physiology is very close to human physiology, and they suffer illness in almost the same way as we do, there is reason to believe that in the next round of mutation the virus can become dangerous to humans,” he said back in 2013, a few months before he was let go from his post. Since then, other experts have agreed and disagreed with those statements.
Coming to Canada
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) there have been no reported cases of ASF to-date, but the organization reminds travellers to declare all animal and food products at the border. Furthermore, if you visit a farm or animals while travelling in a country affected by ASF, it’s important to wash or dispose of any clothing and footwear worn there before returning to the country.
“The CFIA has strict regulatory import controls in place to prevent the entry into Canada of animals and their products and by-products from countries where diseases of concern are known to occur,” Canada’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Jaspinder Komal said in a statement.
“The CFIA is working closely with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to enforce these import controls, with a focus on travellers entering Canada from affected countries, to reduce the risk of these diseases entering Canada. We have also issued border lookouts to stop shipments of fresh pork and other raw and unprocessed porcine commodities as new outbreaks occur.”
Recently at the January Banff Pork Seminar, swine veterinarian Dr. Egan Brockhoff drove the scary reality of a potential ASF outbreak in Canada home when he reminded the crowd that one single reported case would close international borders for at least six months, and that most of Canada’s small outdoor and organic hog operations don’t have proper biosecurity in place to protect themselves against ASF.
“This terrifies me. Within days of border closure with an African swine fever, we’re going to have trouble accessing feed. We’re going to have trouble accessing money. We’re going to have trouble absolutely accessing a market,” he said, before highlighting the problems he saw during a recent trip to China, where ASF is on the rise. “In China they don’t have the ability to euthanize and destroy pigs and so they’re burning them alive. They’re burying them alive. They’re struggling to deal with the virus.”
How the rest of the world is dealing
Globally, any and all cases of ASF are required to be reported, which usually leads to quarantine measures and a cull like the one supposedly ordered in Poland. However, sometimes experts believe countries delay reporting such outbreaks, as Belarus was accused of doing last spring. This has led to concern in the animal health community, with some countries like France and Denmark planning walls to keep out wild boar and others, like Germany, relaxing laws on wild boar hunting. If another mass outbreak of ASF occurs in a major pork-producing country, it could lead to major industry losses.
“The business disruption and profit losses from export cessation would range from big to staggering,” American swine consultant Dennis DiPietre tells The Guardian, adding that within a year or two “we will be engulfed in a worldwide pandemic.”
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If you are wondering what is happening in Poland with the wild boars right now, here’s the explanation 🐗🐗🐗 Polish Minister of the Environment has ordered extermination of the Polish wild boar population over the next couple of months as an only solution for the African Swine Fever virus. He wants us to shoot pegnant and leading sows, leaving the piglets to die😡😠 Moreover, there are even extra money to be paid to those who shoot pregnant wild boar females!🙈 Most of us, polish hunters, are angry about this idea are we are not going to participate in this madness! 😤 If we exterminate the wild boar population to ZERO, we will loose one of the most important wild animal in our polish forrests. 5 years ago, when I became a hunter, I solenly vowed to: 🌲 always be ethical hunter, 🌲keep up the polish hunting traditions, 🌲take care of the polish nature 🌲keep up the good name of polish hunters; …and I am not going to take part in this political game or to help exterminate the boars we all were caring about over all these years! 🐗 📸Picture: @basior1 #NIEdlarzezidzikow #WidBoar #AfricanSwineFever #Poland #HuntingGirl #chasse #caccia #caza #jagd #Hunting
Looking towards the future
To help avoid that situation researchers are now working on a potential vaccine, while The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh is exploring gene editing as a potential way to make pigs resistant to the disease in the hopeful near future.
“Genes can be modified to massively increase resistance and resilience to infection,” professor Eleanor Riley, the Institute’s director says. “The health and welfare benefits of this could be enormous.”
Now wouldn’t that make everyone happier than a pig in mud?