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Wetlands blamed for bird flu

india Updated: Dec 14, 2008 23:47 IST
Rahul Karmakar
Rahul Karmakar
Hindustan Times
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Assam owes its status as a key biodiversity hotspot to a network of wetlands. But many are blaming these wetlands — and backyard duck farms — for the outbreak of the deadly bird flu. The state government has, however, refused to confirm the outbreak though it has issued an alert against it.

There are an estimated 3,500 wetlands across Assam’s Brahmaputra and Barak valleys, including Ramsar sites such as Deepor Beel on the western edge of this city. These wetlands attract hordes of migratory birds, mostly from central Asia, between October and April every year.

Veterinarians have not ruled out the possibility of these migratory birds - waterfowls like the bar-headed goose in particular — having carried the H5N1 virus. Environmentalists, however, have blamed it more on unhygienic conditions in which fowls are reared in Assam.

“Migratory birds are the likely culprits, but we can be sure only after the test results come from Bhopal,” said Veterinary College microbiologist Prabodh Bora. “We are suspecting a few waterfowl species including the bar-headed goose.”

The bar-headed goose was identified as the prime carrier of the dreaded virus in China in 2005. It is also being suspected for spreading the virus in 14 West Asian countries.

Environmentalists, however, have questioned this suspicion. “The bar-headed goose touches down mostly in eastern Assam and not in western Assam where bird flu has been detected,” Wildlife Trust of India member Parimal Bhattacharjee told HT. “This could be a case of some dormant virus being activated by unhygienic poultry farming.”

People for Ethical Treatment to Animals (PETA) agree. “Farm filth is behind the bird flu outbreak in Assam. Officials concerned have refused to take lessons from similar outbreaks in Manipur and across the border in Bangladesh,” said PETA activist Nikunj Sharma.

According to D.C. Goswami, head of Gauhati University's environmental science department, the bird flu problem has hit Assam because of poor wetlands management. “Most of them have become stinking waterholes as encroachment around has cut them off from rivers —- thereby depriving them of natural drainage,” he said.

Meanwhile, officials have identified duck rearing — and a passion for wild goose meat — as the weak link in the fight against the bird flu menace. Ducks account for over 30 per cent of the Rs 650 crore-a-year poultry and poultry products market in Assam.

Almost every rural household has a backyard duck farm, which fetches at least Rs 1,000 a month. Veterinary officials said domesticated ducks, with their propensity to frequent waterbodies, mingle with other waterfowls. "They run the risk of carrying the virus home," a government official, who did not want to be named, said.