India has been the hotspot for the spread of Avian influenza for years. Ever since its detection in 2006 in Maharashtra, there have been several instances of bird flu, including the current outbreak, which started in Himachal Pradesh and has already spread in nine other states. The outbreak has crippled the poultry industry, which was already reeling from the losses incurred during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, and caused public health concerns since humans are not immune to the virus.
"It is believed that migratory species of birds bring the virus. That is the reason we generally notice the flu at this time of the year in India because many bird species (follow the Central Asian Flyway and) migrate to India during winters," pointed out Ajanta Dey, Joint Secretary and Program Director, at Nature Environment and Wildlife Society (NEWS). However, Dey said that while it is possible to monitor domestic birds, upgrade the biosecurity of poultry farms, provide the birds with antibiotics to keep the virus at bay, or cull the birds if they get infected, no pronounced monitoring system or mitigation methods are currently available in our country to track the spread of the virus in wild birds.
Experts believe that India needs to step up its bird ringing programs, satellite and GPS tracking methods, and do more research and collect data to address bird flu in a preventive way, rather than in a reactive way.
Bird Ringing Programs
Bird ringing programs are methods of collecting information on bird's migratory patterns, survival rates, productivity and more to understand the population's general pattern and trends and monitor if any particular species show signs of decline.
In the 1960s, ornithologist and naturalist Dr Salim Ali (also known as India's birdman) had started a large-scale bird ringing program in India. He was part of a team that wanted to see if the Kyasanur forest disease, which was seen spreading in southern India at the time, was brought by birds who migrated from Siberia. Five decades later, Bombay Natural History Society, where Ali had begun his career surveying avifauna, still conducts bird ringing programs. However, its current Director, Bivash Pandav, says that only ringing birds isn't enough, their health, too, has to be monitored to understand their diseases.
"We have been doing bird monitoring for years. We have permanent stations in certain areas, where we carry out these programs. What we do is to tag them and find out their migratory routes. However, in order to address bird flu or any bird disease in its early stage, we need to also monitor the health of the birds, along with tagging, “he said.
“Several water birds are known to be carriers of Avian influenza. In fact, influenza A virus is present in the gut of most of the waterfowls, and sometimes, it so happens, that this virus manifests and evolves, and starts spreading like an epidemic. So, instead of reacting to the epidemic after it starts and threatens to impact human lives, it is better to monitor what level of infection is there in these birds and take precaution," Pandav added.
There are not many institutions like BNHS, or wildlife researchers in India, who work on bird tagging, which also makes it difficult to understand the impact of any disease on endangered species, because without tagging it is not possible to understand the extent of the effects of a disease on an entire population of a particular species. While there had been speculations that bird flu too, is likely to affect the endangered population, ornithologist Mohammed Dilawar, the President and Founder of Nature Forever Society, pointed out that it is unlikely.
"More than a decade back, when bird flu had broken out in India, the wild bird population was not known to have an impact. There are very few research papers available which say things to the contrary. Till now, there is very little scientific evidence to prove that bird flu or any such diseases can wipe out species. So, (although there might be a few deaths) it is unlikely to affect the endangered bird population significantly," said Dilawar.
How can tech enhance bird tracking?
Dr Abi Tamim Vanak, Disease Ecologist at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, said that there are many ways of tracking birds and monitoring their health, which can go a long way in proactively addressing any bird borne diseases.
"The technology that is currently available is GPS and satellite tracking of birds. However, India is behind in such tracking methods. We have only a handful of birds which had been tagged in India. There are a whole bunch of reasons for this. The tags themselves are expensive, and then there are restrictions imposed by certain laws on operation of any radiofrequency device or any satellite communication device, and without the permission from the central government's telecommunication department, it cannot be used. So, currently, we know a lot more about birds tagged in Mongolia which come to India, than about birds that have been tagged in India." said Vanak.
It is not to say bird tagging doesn’t happen in India at all. There are Amur falcons that go from Siberia to South Africa; which have been tagged in India. But it doesn’t happen at a scale in which it should, pointed out Vanak. He added that the best way to mitigate such outbreaks in future is routine monitoring and a one-health framework.
"We should do continuous monitoring throughout the year. If health authorities, animal husbandry authorities, public health workers and wildlife scientists work together, under what's called a ‘one-health framework’, then it can be done routinely, just like it is done for monitoring diseases in livestock. It is the best way to monitor diseases in wild birds. Wildlife surveillance in India is the weakest link for any of these emerging viruses, and we need to strengthen it," suggested Vanak.
With every bird flu outbreak, the poultry industry takes a considerable hit. Media reports say that a dip of 40-60 per cent has been observed in poultry product prices in the past week.
Dr Farah Ishtiaq, from the Tata Institute for Genetics and Society, who has previously worked on avian influenza and malaria, stated, "With the increase in population density (increase contact rates) and no regulations on poultry hygiene or transportation of poultry etc, it is very easy for infections to transmit between poultry farms. So, we need strict regulation and monitoring of poultry in densely populated areas."
She further added, "Bird flu can be a serious threat for captive endangered species like vultures in breeding programs where infections with bird flu can wipe out the whole captive population."
Neha Singh, Founder of a Pune-based non-profit organization Forest Regeneration and Environmental Sustainability Trust (FORREST), pointed out that awareness among poultry owners about how to deal with such outbreaks and possibly compensation for owners of culled poultry can curb the rapid spread of the virus.
"Veterinary staffs also need better and increased training to understand the disease and quickly alert the respective authorities about any possible outbreak, and an increased surveillance and monitoring of wild birds in biodiversity hot spots and zoos should become a priority," added Singh.