By Astghik Bedevian and Karlen Aslanian
Armenia largest open-air market selling live birds continued to do a brisk trade at the weekend, despite announced government restrictions aimed at preventing a spread of the bird flu virus from neighboring Turkey.
The State Veterinary Inspectorate announced on January 10 that market traders across the country can no longer sell poultry and wild birds without a special license from the agency which is subordinated to the Armenian Ministry of Agriculture. The measure was part of government measures taken in response to a bird flu outbreak in eastern Turkish regions close to Armenia that has killed at least three people.
But at the bird market in Yerevan’s Kanaker-Zeytun district it was business as usual, with live chickens and pet birds such as pigeons and parrots available for sale in large numbers. Traders there told RFE/RL that nobody has even tried to enforce the serious curbs ban on their business.
“I have my clientele and my business is going on as usual,” said one of them.
“Yes, they’ve told us about [the restrictions], but nobody is asking for any documents,” said another trader.
Although there seemed to be few buyers in the market on Saturday morning, the traders insisted that the bird flu strain has not scared away Armenians wishing to buy pet birds or live chickens for cooking or breeding. “People keep buying our stuff and demand is strong,” said one man. “If I had more birds I would sell them as well.”
He and his colleagues were also confident that their birds will not catch the H5N1 virus that killed three children in a Turkish village less than 100 kilometers from Yerevan last week and can be easily transmitted by wild birds. “Why should it affect us, if there is no bird virus in this country?” one of them asked, pointing to official statements that there have been no cases of the deadly disease in Armenia so far.
Armenian health authorities, however, were clearly of different opinion when they took this and other precautions, including mandatory medical checks of individuals arriving from Turkey and disinfection of all vehicles entering Armenia. For its part, the U.S. embassy in Yerevan has urged all Americans living in the country to “avoid all contact with live poultry and wild birds and … live poultry markets.”
Armen Avagian, the head of the Yerevan office of the Veterinary Inspectorate, said he has talked to the owner of the Kanaker-Zeytun market, Petros Hakobian, and “asked him to temporarily ban sales of live poultry.”
Hakobian, who is also the deputy head of the district administration, gave a confusing explanation of the situation when contacted by RFE/RL by phone. He at first claimed to be unaware of the government restrictions and said he will ban poultry trade only if “a single bird flu case is registered” in Armenia. “I am the owner and must pay taxes. In order to be able to do that I have to work,” he said.
“Their sale is indeed banned,” Hakobian confessed later in the interview. But he claimed that his traders simply want their birds to “breathe some fresh air” and that he can not stop them doing that.
According to Avagian, the Veterinary Inspectorate, has received more than a hundred reports, 16 of them on Friday alone, of dead chickens and other birds found in various parts of the country over the past week. Detailed inspections of their carcasses have not found any traces of bird flu, the official said.
Authorities in Turkey have culled hundreds of thousands of birds in an effort to stamp out the virus, but are still struggling to localize it. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization warned last week that the virus could become endemic in Turkey and poses a “serious risk” to neighboring nations, including Armenia.
The bird flu scare has already reduced consumption of poultry meat and eggs in Armenia, raising serious concern among Armenian agricultural firms. They have seen a dramatic expansion over the past decade and currently meet the bulk of domestic demand in poultry products.
Top executives of Armenia’s leading poultry factories, reportedly placed under quarantine, met reporters on Saturday to give fresh assurances that their facilities are immune to the disease. They said their rural employees have been told to cull personal poultry flocks to face dismissal.
“Thousands of people work in the industry,” said Arsen Bagratian, director of a big poultry farm in Lusakert, a town 20 kilometers north of Yerevan. “Between 70 and 80 percent of them have contact with those birds every day. Thank God, there have been no symptoms of that disease among our workers so far. And nobody has had a desire to quit their jobs out of fear.”
Bagratian and other industry executives said the sector has not suffered considerable losses yet. But as one of them warned, “A panic among the people would inflict serious economic losses on Armenia.”