By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
LAIKIPIA, Kenya, Apr 10 (Reuters) Kenyan children recited poems and Peruvian artists portrayed migrating birds alongside dozens of performers and conservationists gathered in Kenya to celebrate World Migratory Bird Day.
Conservationists, artists and activists met on the edge of the Great Rift Valley to try to counter the negative influence which bird flu has had on how people view migratory birds.
Their meeting in Laikipia, about 180 km north of Nairobi, precedes a UN Environmental Programme bird flu seminar in Nairobi this week.
Kenya's part of the Great Rift Valley -- a vast geographical feature that runs from northern Syria to central Mozambique -- is a haven for birds like flamingos, pelicans and storks, but is thought to be at risk from bird flu.
Millions of birds migrating from Asia to the northern hemisphere stop here to enjoy the freshwater ponds, dams and lakes, all possible conduits for the avian flu virus.
The role of migratory birds versus the trade in bird products in the spread of avian flu has also been the source of much debate, with conservationists contending the disease's spread has not closely followed known bird migrations.
Scientists have not reached a consensus on the issue.
''Because the role of migratory birds is a very obvious one, it's often very tempting to say that migratory birds are bringing the disease,'' Robert Hepworth, executive secretary of the Convention on Migrating Species, told Reuters.
''Migratory birds have been involved of course, but the actual evidence of migratory birds spreading this disease across continents on a large scale is very patchy.'' In Africa, the poultry trade poses a bigger risk for the spread of bird flu than migratory birds, some experts say.
Bird flu has spread rapidly since late 2003 from Asia to Europe, the W Asia East and Africa, killing 109 people worldwide and raising the spectre of a mutated form which could pass easily between humans and kill millions of people.
From the start of the year, more than 30 new countries have reported outbreaks, increasing panic among populations who fear migrating birds may have come in contact with the disease and brought it to their doorstep.
''Something they look forward to seeing in the back garden is now being seen as a threat,'' Leon Bennum, director of science and policy at BirdLife International, said.
''There's a panic and hysteria spreading. People don't understand the role wild birds play.'' Conservationists say some people have destroyed nests or have wanted to cut down trees for fear infected migratory birds would perch in their gardens.
''For people in Europe to be destroying swallows' nests as a response to this disease is a disproportionate, unjustified overreaction,'' Hepworth said.
World Migratory Day was celebrated in 40 countries yesterday with bird walks and small festivals.
''This is a symbolic occasion which is going to declare to the world that the migratory birds do matter and that we do something in protecting them'', Italian author and conservationist Kuki Gallmann said.
REUTERS PR BS0842