Denmark's Grand Plan: Contain African Swine Flu With a Fence
The fence is supposed to stop wild boars carrying the disease from crossing the border. Experts say the idea won't work.
The United States isn’t the only country dealing with border wall controversy: Denmark is spending $12 million to erect a fence along its border with Germany in an attempt to keep foreign wild boar from coming in and spreading African swine fever.
Critics, though, told the Daily Beast the wall would be ineffective.
“[It’s] likely not ... a practical way to keep the African swine fever; beyond the fact that wild boar are extremely powerful animals and likely they can make their way through or under it,” Viorel D. Popescu, an assistant professor of conservation biology at Ohio University who studies Eastern European forest ecology, told the Daily Beast via email.
Denmark’s proposed fence, which will be completed by this fall, will stand 5 feet tall and will extend underground as well to prevent the boar digging under it. It will have regular gates and steps for humans to be able to cross over. The wall is the central effort to keep the disease from spreading to Danish pig farms, although the Danish government is also stripping back restrictions on hunting wild boar, calling for “wild boar hunts around the clock, as well as intensified efforts to hunt wild boar on state-owned and private land,” said a statement from the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food.
Critics of the fence and mass culling of wild boar, including conservationists and hunters, point to several issues with the plans. The fence will have gaps for roads and waterways that boar can simply walk or swim through, making the $12 million project only partially effective.
It also may prevent or hinder the free movement of other wildlife, specifically, wolves. Wolves had been extinct in Denmark for more than 200 years until a nascent pack recently crossed over the border, and they prey on wild boar.
Wild boar are also useful to forest ecology: The rooting and digging they do on the forest floor helps germinate seeds and spread useful bacteria in the soil.
“A barrier like that can potentially slow down invasion, but won’t stop it,” said Sara Kross, a conservation biologist and director of Columbia University’s School of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology. “Any time you put up a fence it’s going to affect wildlife, hopefully wouldn’t affect other animals of conservation concern getting through.”
Why the drastic measures? Wild boar can carry African swine fever, and Danish officials fear that these boar can wreak major destruction. Though the disease doesn’t affect humans, it is lethal to pigs within days, spreads quickly, and there is no cure or vaccine. African swine fever can spread rapidly through large herds, kills at almost a 100 percent rate, and can last in pigs that do survive it for up to two months.
There’s a lot at stake for Danes. The pork industry, worth about $4.6 billion according to the country’s statistics department, is gigantic: The Danish Agriculture and Food Council reports that it takes about 5,000 farms to produce 28 million pigs annually (Denmark’s human population is about six million people). Pork accounts for more than 5 percent of Denmark’s total exports. If an African swine fever outbreak were to occur, "exports to non-EU countries would have to shut down," the Danish government said in a statement. It could cost the country $1.7bn (£1.3bn) billion in pork exports, according to the BBC.
African swine fever hasn’t yet been spotted in Denmark or Germany, but there were a few outbreaks in Belgium (which also borders Germany) last fall. The disease has affected Lithuania and other Eurasian countries since 2014, where they are still attempting to fight it off. In Poland, another leading pork exporter, the government called for the mass slaughtering of the country’s entire population of wild boars—about 200,000 animals—and prompted protests online and in city streets in response.
“It’s a political problem. Biosecurity is the only answer but it’s hard and costly,” Mikołaj Golachowski, a biologist and conservationist, told the Guardian. Research has shown that African swine flu spreads most effectively through discarded food and contaminated equipment, meaning that pig owners should be the first line of defense in preventing the disease. Golachowski also said that wild boar eat rodents and insect larvae, and killing them off could lead to a population boom in both types of pests.
“Overall, such extreme measures have rarely (if ever) proven their worth, and conservation should be evidence-based, not politics-based,” Popescu said.
Others, like Max A. E. Rossberg, chairman of the European Wilderness Society, said that blocking boars from moving won’t stop the disease from entering Denmark. “The African swine fever virus is found in uncooked or undercooked processed pork meat,” he told the Daily Beast via email. “The most common spreading of the virus is via garbage. People buy a salami sandwich and its remains end up in the food trays of pigs or wild boars rummage through the garbage and eat the salami.
“As long as humans cross into Denmark, so will the virus make its way into Denmark.”