The bird flu outbreak in the Kuttanad region was the last straw for farmers already struggling to come to terms with the losses inflicted by the 2018 floods and the ongoing pandemic. Sam Paul A. and Hiran Unnikrishnan report on the poultry industry that is reeling under several blows
The Pampa river flows gently, its water glittering in the warm January sun. A lush green carpet of paddy saplings stretches out for miles near the water body. But a sombre mood prevails in this picture-perfect setting at SN Kadavu, a village near Karuvatta in Kerala’s Alappuzha district.
A levelled patch of uncultivated paddy field abutting a road along the village looks diseased, sprinkled with bleaching powder. A nearby board reads: ‘Warning! Bird Flu 2021 carcass burning site’.
Seated on a bench outside a thatched structure close to his two-bedroom house a few metres away from the culling site is Devaraj K.V., 52, a second-generation duck farmer. He looks shaken. Devaraj lost 9,240 ducks, his only source of income, to avian influenza (H5N8) in a span of just two weeks.
“It’s been a horrendous couple of seasons,” he says. With an eye on the Christmas market, Devaraj had bought 8,240 one-day-old ducklings at ₹22 per chick from a hatchery at Thuruthy near Changanassery in Kottayam district in August 2020. Two months later, he purchased another 1,000 egg-laying ducks at ₹280 per bird from Valanchery in Malappuram district, all to help recoup his business that was reeling from the COVID-19-induced lockdown and the closure of restaurants and eateries.
The ducklings were hand-fed for the first 30 days. In the following months, the birds were taken to the Chalunkal and Manthara paddy fields for foraging with the help of seven labourers. “Things were going smooth. I had even struck a deal with poultry traders in Ernakulam to sell my ducks two days before Christmas when the bird flu hit like a bolt from the blue,” says Devaraj.
His ducks started to fall ill on December 20 and began to die one by one. In the next couple of days, some 3,000 ducks in his farm perished. The rest of the birds were culled by the authorities in the second week of January after the outbreak was confirmed in the Kuttanad region. Devaraj estimates his losses at ₹8 lakh.
The bird flu outbreak in Kuttanad, a vast area of land reclaimed from the Vembanad Lake spread across Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta and Kottayam districts, was the last straw for these farmers, who were already struggling to come to terms with the losses inflicted by the great deluge of 2018 and the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the third outbreak of avian influenza in the region in the past seven years.
The outbreak was detected in Karuvatta, Pallippad, Nedumudi, Thakazhi and Kainakary in Alappuzha district and Neendoor in Kottayam district. Following the mass death of ducks last month, the authorities sent samples of dead birds to the National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases (NIHSAD), Bhopal. Six of them tested positive for bird flu. On January 5, rapid response teams were despatched to the affected areas, except Kainakary where the disease was confirmed much later, on January 20. In three days, men wearing personal protective equipment culled and burnt the carcasses of 57,687 birds, almost entirely ducks, within a one-km radius of the hotspots in the two districts to keep the virus at bay. The teams destroyed 32,592 eggs and 5,078 kg of feed. The number of ducks that died due to H5N8 stood at 25,265. In Kainakary, 349 ducks, 297 chickens and two geese were culled on January 20 and 21.
A Ramsar site and a designated Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, Kuttanad, nicknamed the rice bowl of Kerala, is one of the areas where farming is carried out below the sea level. Duck farming to the villages here is what tapioca is to the tropical hills of Central Travancore. Nearly all households in the region keep at least a few of these birds in their backyards, which are a consistent source of income for several families and form the crux of their food security, besides offering jobs to several thousands. It is common to see duck flocks quacking and waddling across roads and paddy fields post-harvest, being guided and goaded by ‘masters’, across the region.
The transformation of duck rearing in Kuttanad from the turn of the 21st century till the first bout of bird flu outbreak in 2014 was staggering. From 6.61 lakh in 2003, the total number of birds grew to touch 9.94 lakh in 2007. On the back of a slew of duck rearing schemes rolled out by the State government, the sector grew further over the next five years up to 2012, to take the bird count to 17.09 lakh.
The bird flu outbreaks in 2014 and 2016, however, put the brakes on this flourishing sector. As per estimates by the State Animal Husbandry Department, around 15 lakh of ducks and ducklings were destroyed in Kuttanad during these outbreaks, while another four lakh ducks died in the floods of 2018, which also caused the destruction of eight lakh eggs besides 75,000 ducklings. The flock size kept by the farmers began to fall and in the years between 2012 and 2019, the bird stock grew by just 3.96% to take the number of birds to 17.76 lakh.
“We conduct duck farming throughout the year with a focus on Christmas and Easter. If ducks survive through the period, we can make some good money even after labour cost and expenses for medicine. But if there’s bird flu or a bacterial infection, our lives turn upside down. After 2014 and 2016, we are unfortunately reliving the difficult moment again. It will take some time to rebound from this crisis,” says Samuel K., a duck farmer from Pallippad who lost a few thousand ducks to the flu outbreak.
Traditional duck rearing
Unlike the modern poultry farming methods of rearing birds indoors, duck farmers of Kuttanad rear ducks in the open, although it makes the birds more vulnerable to diseases like avian influenza. “Ducks are voracious eaters,” says Thomas Kutty, a duck farmer from Karuvatta. “It is not sustainable to hand-feed the birds beyond a specific period. Kuttanad with its vast paddy fields and backwaters is conducive for duck farming. Immediately after the paddy harvest, we move the birds to vast fields for feeding. We keep the birds on the move from one field to another until they are saleable,” says Kutty. According to him, allowing ducks to forage fields is mutually beneficial. The ducks get enough food in the form of rice, worms and insects, and the paddy owners stand to get a few bucks. The ‘Kuttanadan’ ducks (Chara and Chembally — two local breeds) reared like this are branded and are in high demand.
With a dramatic increase in the consumption of poultry protein over the last decade, Kerala is now experiencing a huge gap between the demand and supply of duck meat. The prices rose consequently, from ₹160 to ₹210 per bird, show estimates available with the Government Duck Farm, Niranam.
While consumers deal with higher prices, about 80% of ‘Kuttanadan’ ducks grown by traditional farmers are now sold for meat at the age of 2.5-3 months — a sharp deviation from the earlier practice of maintaining the female ducks for egg production.
“This is not at all an ideal situation since all the good quality birds are now sold for meat while the State looks to neighbours for duck eggs,” explains Thomas Jacob, Chief Veterinary Officer, Pathanamthitta.
Ban on poultry trade
According to farmers’ associations, there are more than 1,000 big duck farmers in the region, while several thousands, including small farmers, meat traders and egg sellers, are allied to the sector. The bird flu has directly impacted only around 30 duck farmers, but it has rattled the entire poultry sector in the region with the authorities regulating the trade of meat and egg of ducks, chicken and quail in a bid to tame the spread of the disease.
The 24.14-km Alappuzha- Changanassery road has parrot green paddy fields and palm-studded backwaters on either side. Small stalls selling ‘Kuttanadan’ ducks, eggs and local fish along the road stand testimony to the agricultural tradition of the place. However, after the outbreak, the traders whose lives depended on wayside vending have closed the duck stalls. “We are not farmers, but small-time traders. We buy ducks from farmers and sell them for a small profit. The ban on poultry trade has upended our lives,” says Jose K., a trader.
The reports of a bird flu outbreak in the region, which sits next door to some of the most renowned international tourist destinations including Kumarakom, also came at a time when the tourism industry was looking for a revival after being in limbo thanks to the pandemic. In a quick fire-fighting act, most restaurants and houseboats operating in the region have stopped serving chicken and duck delicacies to guests.
“Enquiries seeking the status of the outbreaks have already begun pouring in though we have got no cancellations so far. The bookings, however, will be affected if the scare continues for a longer time as had happened in 2014,” says K. Rupesh Kumar, coordinator, Responsible Tourism, Kerala.
At Vaisyambhagom, 9,000 fully grown ducks including drakes, healthy and unaffected by the outbreak, belonging to Thankachan Kaithakalam, are enjoying their time in the Pookaitha river. “These birds were to be sold in the new year. The outbreak and subsequent restrictions have changed everything,” says the veteran duck farmer. He had sold 12,000 birds on the eve of Christmas but is now expending ₹25,000 daily to feed the remaining flock. “The puncha paddy cultivation season is on and there are hardly any fields in the region for ducks to eat from. The only way to maintain the birds is to provide them with compounded feeds. In normal conditions, rearing a duck for meat costs around ₹175, while a 120-days-old duck could fetch ₹250. All the money I am spending now on the flock is additional cost. If the ban is to remain in place, I will have to suffer huge losses,” says Kaithakalam. He has with him 30,000 duck eggs, which he says “will spoil within days” with no proper facility to store them.
Although duck farmers used to transport the birds to other districts and sometimes across the State as far as Andhra Pradesh for feeding based on the availability of fields, the restrictions in place mean that they cannot take the birds outside the region.
The State government’s compensation plan for the owners of dead/culled birds due to the bird flu has been slammed by poultry farmers as being inadequate. The government has announced a compensation of ₹200 for a bird older than two months and ₹100 for those less than two months old. Besides, ₹5 will be given for each egg destroyed. “The government had given the same amount as compensation during the previous bird flu outbreaks. The prices of ducklings, feed and labour cost have increased in recent years and the government should have considered that while fixing the compensation. I have taken loans from money lenders at exorbitant rates and my family is staring at a debt trap,” Devaraj says. Some farmers say they might not be able to prove the number of birds that perished before the avian influenza was officially confirmed. “I am going to get compensation for the culled birds alone,” says Kutty.
While farmers like Devaraj and Kutty are set to get some compensation, people like Kaithakalam who are unaffected by the disease but are prevented from selling the birds, eggs and meat are left in the lurch. “The government should at least provide the feed free of cost until the ban is lifted,” Kaithakalam says.
The first alarm of a potential bird flu infestation in Kuttanad came from a duck farm at Aymanam in Kottayam on November 25, 2014. Recognising its potential to set off a crisis in Kuttanad, a region well connected through a network of water bodies, the Animal Husbandry Department ordered the culling of all the poultry birds within a one-km radius of the outbreak zones. The Rapid Response Force teams comprising personnel of the Animal Husbandry and Health Departments were formed to respond and contain the outbreak. They culled 0.277 million poultry birds from 288 farms across the region.
A study on the economic impact of the 2014 bird flu outbreak on Kuttanad, which was published by the ICAR – National Institute of Veterinary Epidemiology and Disease Informatics in 2017, had found that the loss due to destruction of feed and eggs was relatively high in backyard farms than their commercial counterparts. This was primarily due to easy access to stored feed and eggs for destruction and also lack of compensation for the destroyed feed.
The analysis revealed a total loss of $10,203 per hatchery on an average. Of this, 59% was destruction of hatchery eggs. The transfer payments (compensation) had alleviated the loss partially to the farmers-producers and hatcheries though it could not offset other stakeholders, it noted. For instance, the decline in tourist inflow to Kuttanad post the outbreak was drastic, severely affecting the backwater tourism sector as a whole. While the loss in gross returns varied based on the types of boats, the loss per tourist boat was estimated to be $2,280.
Pointing out that control measures are only post-incidence, the study also called for the adoption of preventive bio-security measures at the farm level besides periodical screening of domestic birds.
“Frankly speaking, you do not have many other options as long as Kuttanad remains to be a major flyway location for migratory birds. There is always a chance of a bird flu outbreak in the region, especially in November-December. The widespread presence of bird sanctuaries and the huge network of water bodies are not helping the crisis either. For a rural community, that’s a pretty tough hit to take,” says G. Govindaraj, senior scientist with the ICAR- NIVEDI, who led the study.
The Kerala State Planning board, in its proposal for a special package for post-flood Kuttanad, also noted that around 90% of the ducks in Kuttanad are reared without any systematic or scientific feeding practices or disease-control measures. According to the board, the high level of duck mortality due to Duck Pasteurellosis, Duck Plaque and New Duck diseases is a major issue faced by the sector in the region.
“Lack of knowledge about vaccination against these diseases and scarcity of vaccination experts are some of the other factors leading to high levels of duck mortality. Kuttanad urgently needs a large project that would vaccinate most of the ducks within a strict time frame. It also needs proper disease surveillance programmes and vaccination of nomadic ducks to prevent mass deaths. A cadre of field workers has to be created for this purpose,” the report pointed out.
The board also recommended that the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Pookode, be allotted a project with infrastructural facilities to provide and distribute five lakh ducklings each year, besides facilities for providing services like disease diagnosis, feed analysis, training, custom hatching facilities and field veterinary services.
Risk to humans
Soon after the bird flu was confirmed, the Centre rushed multi-disciplinary teams to study the outbreak and evaluate the public health risk of H5N8. Although the risk of transmission of the H5N8 subtype of the Influenza A virus to humans is considered to be very low, experts warned that mutations might occur and the virus could become more aggressive. “We have tested several samples. No case of H5N8 and H5N1 has so far been detected in humans in India. However, virus mutations remain a threat,” says a scientist with the National Institute of Virology, Pune.
Santhosh Kumar P.K., District Animal Husbandry Officer, Alappuzha, says that there is no conclusive evidence yet that the source of infection was migratory birds. “But there is a high chance that the ducks in Kuttanad got the virus from the migratory birds that arrive in the region in large numbers,” he adds.
With recurring avian influenza outbreaks poised to disrupt the sustainability and viability of duck farming in the region, experts have called for detailed studies. “The need of the hour is to set up a biosafety level-3 lab in the State. After duck deaths were reported in December, 2020, it took two weeks to ascribe it to bird flu as samples had to be sent to NIHAD,” says an official with the State Animal Husbandry department.
Looking at the frightening regularity of the outbreaks, it is time the State adopted these remedial measures.