Kuttanad feverish following bird flu outbreak

In a region known for its labyrinth of lakes, rivers, and canals, a good number of people grow ducks providing a consistent source of income for families and offering jobs to thousands. Recurring outbreaks, however, have cast a shadow over the sustainability and viability of traditional duck farming practices here. 

Updated - November 11, 2022 10:02 am IST

Published - November 02, 2022 07:56 pm IST - ALAPPUZHA

Members of a rapid response team preparing to cull ducks at Vazhuthanam, near Haripad, last week.

Members of a rapid response team preparing to cull ducks at Vazhuthanam, near Haripad, last week. | Photo Credit: SURESH ALLEPPEY

As the southwest monsoon started to retreat from the skies of Vazhuthanam, near Haripad, Achankunju T. ,53, moved his flock of 10,500 ducks from Edathua to the 320-acre Vazhuthanam Vadakke paddy polder in Haripad municipality towards the end of September. His ducks foraged around in the company of migratory and local birds in the polder, which got dewatered by farmers as part of preparing it for the upcoming paddy (puncha) crop season, until disaster struck in the third week of October.

“All of a sudden my birds (around 80-day-old) started to look lethargic, suffer from seizures, blindness, and could not stand. A number of them died between October 19 and 26,” says Achankunju, a second-generation duck farmer from Vazhuthanam.

Around the same time, Thulasidas V., a veteran duck farmer from Karumadi, who was raising 9,732 ducks (85-day-old) in the nearby Vazhuthanam Padinjare paddy polder lost hundreds of birds to similar symptoms. 

The Animal Husbandry department (AHD) in no time airlifted samples of dead birds to the National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases (NIHSAD), Bhopal, for analysis, after initial tests conducted at the Avian Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Thiruvalla raised some suspicions. The results which came on October 26 confirmed avian influenza (H5N1) in ducks. 

A day later, members of rapid response teams culled and burnt the carcasses of 15,867 ducks belonging to the farmers on the outer bunds of the Vazhuthanam Vadakke and Kattukandam paddy polders separated by a canal.

According to the AHD, another 2,117 ducks died directly from the infection (farmers put the number of dead ducks much higher). Seventy-eight domestic birds within one-km radius of the hotspot were also culled as part of the response to the disease outbreak. 

Situated on the banks of the Achenkovil river, the paddy polders continue to be frequented by migratory birds. However, ashes and bleaching powder sprinkled on the outer bunds bear testimony to the pain and losses suffered by the two duck farmers.

It is the fifth outbreak of bird flu to hit the Kuttanad region, spread across Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta and Kottayam districts, in the past eight years. After the 2014 and 2016 outbreaks, which resulted in the death/ culling of some eight lakh ducks, the cases tailed off. A period of lull followed before avian flu hit the region thrice between January 2021 and now killing another 2.38 lakh ducks.

In a region known for its labyrinth of lakes, rivers, and canals, a good number of people grow these birds — from a handful to several thousand — providing a consistent source of income for families and offering jobs to thousands. Recurring outbreaks, however, have cast a shadow over the sustainability and viability of traditional duck farming practices in the backwater region. 

Achankunju laments that if the ducks had survived the season, he could have fetched anywhere between ₹21 lakh and ₹24 lakh by selling them for meat during the Christmas period. “Before the bird flu struck my flock, I had spent around ₹175 per bird for feed, medicine, and wages for helpers, not to mention the enormous effort and time gone into raising them. It is the third time I have suffered losses due to bird flu and other outbreaks. In 2016, I lost 25,000 ducks to avian influenza. I am tired of getting pinched by repeated bouts of diseases,” says the farmer. 

During the previous outbreaks, the government had provided a compensation of ₹200 for a bird older than two months and ₹100 for those less than two months old. Besides, ₹5 was given for each egg destroyed.

Thulasidas says he is not going to get compensation for at least 1,000 birds that died in the initial days of the disease before the outbreak was officially confirmed. “I am unable to prove the number of birds that perished in the first few days,” he says. 

Nearly two years after avian influenza wreaked havoc among duck farmers at SN Kadavu, near Karuvatta, a flock of 3,000 egg-laying ducks paddle through the Pampa river. Devarajan K. on a canoe goads them onto the river bank and the birds soon waddle to the nearby Chalunkal paddy polder looking for feed. 

Devarajan, who lost his entire flock last year, looks anxious after hearing that duck deaths have been reported from Cheruthana and a few other places. He fears that the recent bout of bird flu raging in the region may wreak havoc, with devastating effects like in the previous outbreaks. 

Unlike Devarajan, who is hoping to recoup the business, his friend Thomas Kutty ceased to be a duck farmer after the devastation caused by the twin outbreaks last year. “I was already struggling to come to terms with the losses inflicted by the 2018 floods and the COVID-19 outbreak when avian flu came to haunt me. It was the last straw and I quit duck farming altogether,” says Thomas Kutty, who turned to paddy cultivation for a living. 

He is not the only one to quit the traditional vocation as several other farmers have moved onto pastures new. According to farmers’ associations, the number of duck farmers started to dwindle following the 2014 bird flu outbreak.

As per the data available with the AHD, there are around 100 big duck farmers (having a flock size of 2,000 or above) in Alappuzha district. They, together with several small farmers, are raising some five lakh birds (mostly Chara and Chembally — two local breeds) with an eye on the upcoming Christmas season. 

The latest bout of bird flu has directly impacted only two duck growers but it has a knock-on effect on farmers in over a dozen local bodies in the region, with the authorities banning the movement of birds in a bid to tackle the spread of the disease.

Farmers used to transport the birds to other districts and sometimes across the State for foraging based on the availability of fields. “Ducks are voracious eaters and they need to be moved from one field to another at regular intervals. Due to the restrictions, we cannot take the birds outside of their current location. It is not financially sustainable to hand-feed them beyond a period,” says a farmer from Karuvatta. 

A recent book Duck Production and Management Strategies edited by A. Jalaludeen, former Director of Academics and Research, Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, R. Richard Churchil of the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Chennai, and Elisabeth Baéza of the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, Nouzilly, observes that migratory wild birds pose a serious threat to duck farming in Kuttanad.

“They not only spoil the leased foraging paddy fields and cause economic loss but also lead to avian influenza outbreak due to their contact with the nomadic ducks,” reads the book. 

Commenting on the present situation, Mr. Jalaludeen says that repeated bird flu outbreaks in Kuttanad have rendered duck farmers enervated. “In places such as Kuttanad frequented by migratory birds, the threat of a bird flu outbreak is high. That said, ducks have been shown to harbour avian influenza viruses. They get flared up on favourable conditions such as when the bird’s resistance power drops as a result of infections, a lack of balanced nutrient-rich feed and so on. The need of the hour is constant monitoring and evaluation of the entire duck population in the region by veterinary officials. Occurrence of the disease year after year poses an existential threat to the local breeds,” he says.

Mr. Jalaludeen notes that apart from the Government Duck Farm at Niranam, a second duck farm should be set up outside Kuttanad to protect the local breeds.

According to him, young people are hardly showing any interest in duck farming. “Traditional duck farming is now confined entirely to the older generation. Youngsters no more consider it a viable career,” he says adding that government compensation for the bird flu outbreak is inadequate. 

Soon after avian influenza was confirmed, the Centre rushed a team of experts to Alappuzha to assess the situation.

The Health department has urged the people to maintain caution in view of the outbreak. Officials say the highly contagious H5N1 strain is usually transmitted from bird to bird. However, they warn that mutations may occur and the virus can be transmitted to humans. 

Though there is no confirmation yet about the source of infection, officials say there is a high chance that the ducks got the virus from migratory birds that arrive in Kuttanad in large numbers.

“Other than ducks, no migratory birds have been found dead in recent times in the district. The Forest department regularly collects samples of migratory birds for testing but nothing suspicious has been detected. But our strong assumption is that ducks still got the infection from other birds. Ducks forage in the open and come in close contact with winged visitors who act as carriers,” says an AHD official. 

Considering the alarming frequency of the outbreaks and not many options available to prevent avian flu outbreaks in Kuttanad, it seems the region is increasingly turning out to be a no-place for ducks. 

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