HONG KONG (Reuters) - In its heyday, Hong Kong's famous Bird Garden market bustled with shoppers bargaining in Cantonese for exotic birds for sale as pets or for Buddhist rituals.
But the Bird Garden, one of Hong Kong's more colorful sights, is deserted these days after a migratory bird for sale at the market in the densely populated Mongkok district was found to be carrying the H5N1 bird flu strain.
The discovery a week ago of a daurian starling bird with the virus prompted health officials to ban the sale of birds in the market until further notice.
Government workers dressed in surgical masks and suits disinfect the area daily and health officials are checking for signs of disease among hundreds of birds left in the market.
Vendors fear Hong Kong's latest H5N1 outbreak could herald an end to what was a colorful, lively age-old trade, already hit hard since 1997 when the virus made its first known jump to humans, killing six people in Hong Kong.
"It will be very hard for business to get back to normal. In fact, it has been really tough since 1997 when we first had bird flu," said feed seller Tang Ip-wah, 75.
The virus has re-emerged a few times in Hong Kong since 1997, resulting in mass poultry culls. Since late 2003, the virus has killed 191 people out of 313 known cases worldwide. No one knows for sure how people contract it, but most cases were due to direct contact with infected birds, mostly chickens.
The virus's appearance a decade ago dampened enthusiasm in Hong Kong for the Chinese tradition of keeping birds. The latest outbreak at the market, the main source of birds for Hong Kong residents, mayprompt more bird owners to get rid of their pets.
Bird raising in China dates back to the 17th century, when Manchu nomads conquered Beijing, founded the Qing dynasty and introduced their obsession with these winged creatures.
Freed from the drudgery of work, the newly rich elite spent their days in tea houses showing off their exotic birds.
The hobby has lived on in Hong Kong and some elderly men continue to congregate each morning around dawn in parks, so that their pets can sing along with other birds.
But repeated outbreaks of H5N1 in Hong Kong in poultry since 1997 have led some bird lovers to release their pets, especially after the government warned against kissing pet birds in 2005.
Large numbers of birds are still bought for release into the wild, especially by Buddhists who believe they will benefit in their next lives by giving freedom to living creatures.
"Many people have given up their hobby, released their birds," said Tan, the feed seller.
"Now with this, there will be no recovery. I could hardly make ends meet even before this. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here," said Tan, pointing at his eight pet birds in ornate Chinese bird cages.
The Bird Garden had largely been left alone by Hong Kong authorities during bird flu outbreaks, but concern had risen over the past few months when 16 wild birds were found dead with the disease -- most of them near the market.
Stricter laws from February 2007 required imported birds -- mostly from mainland China -- to have health certificates.
China has strict quarantine laws, demanding all animal exports go through a stringent series of inspections before they are allowed to leave the country.
But even Chinese officials readily admit that enforcement is a problem. China has a vast, porous border, stretching from snowy mountains to steamy jungles and a rugged coastline, making it easy for smugglers to traffic endangered species, antiques, cigarettes and even people.
The daurian starling bird found with H5N1 last week was left at a market stall by its owner. Health officials discovered it was infected during routine testing of bird fecal samples.
The starling -- a migratory bird that breeds in China and Mongolia and migrates to South and Southeast Asia in the winter -- had no health certificate, raising suspicion it might have been smuggled or illegally captured.
The government is still hunting for the person who left the bird at the market to find out where the starling came from.
The government has no plan to shut the bird market permanently, but stallholders seem to think it's inevitable as the demand for live birds continues to plummet because of health fears.
"Business was already thin ... Before last week, we were only making around HK$350 (US$45) a day. Now we make nothing at all. I don't see any hope for us," said Mr Chan, a feed seller.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing