The death of 4,000 crows across the state in three months prompted a high-level joint team of the United Nations and Union government to arrive in Jharkhand on Thursday to probe why the phenomenon was limited to home scavengers, and spurred the state to issue a blanket alert to all the 24 districts, zoos and parks.
A team comprising H.R. Khanna, project co-ordinator of Food and Agriculture Organisation, United Nations, and A.B. Negi, assistant commissioner of the Centre’s animal husbandry department, which reached Ranchi on Thursday, is currently in Jamshedpur.
Earlier, tests at Jamshedpur — considered to be the epicentre of crow deaths — revealed conflicting results. National Institute of Virology, Pune, drew a blank, the state animal husbandry department dithered about citing a specific virus and Indian Veterinary Research Institute in Bareilly said H5N1, one of the deadliest avian virus strains, was the culprit.
Director of state animal husbandry department A.G. Bandyopadhyay told The Telegraph that the visit of Negi and Khanna was an attempt to find out why only crows were dying, not poultry. “No hens are dying, only crows,” he said, adding all animal husbandry officials across the districts were put on 24X7 alert to monitor the deaths.
The state forest department is also worried. “The forest department has served a blanket alert to zoos and parks in Jharkhand to protect birds and animals from infection,” said chief conservator of forests (wildlife) A.K. Gupta.
It may be a knee-jerk response, but some zoos are more alarmed than others.
“We have isolated the aviary. We are taking no chances,” Ranchi-based Birsa Munda Biological Park director P.K. Verma said. “We have temporarily closed the aviary and are cleaning enclosures and nearby areas with bleaching powder and spraying anti-virus liquid. Birds are being fed vitamins to boost immunity,” said he.
Tata Steel Zoological Park, Jamshedpur, however, has adopted a wait-and-watch mode. But, East Singhbhum district officials have directed scavengers to dig 2ft deep pits to bury crow carcasses.
In Dhanbad district, too, animal husbandry officer Abhay Prasad Singh stressed on “digging pits and sprinkling lime” to dispose carcasses.Though all experts do not confirm bird flu, the fear about human threat and possible pandemic is running high. However, a bulletin of World Health Organisation (see box) says the worry is overrated.
Environment bodies, zoo authorities and ornithologists are deliberating on four main angles — the exact reason behind deaths, human and animal peril, the magnitude of dwindling numbers and finally, long-term ecological impact if the bird becomes endangered.
Ecologically, it hints towards a major imbalance. If a study conducted by Jamshedpur ornithologist K.K. Sharma — who first sounded the alarm on the deaths — is to be believed, Jharkhand had around 50,000 house crows, but in just three months, the numbers are 40 per cent down.
“Till last week’s count, in Jamshedpur only, from 6,000 crows, the steel city now has 4,000,” Sharma said, adding he was sceptical about H5N1 virus as the cause. “In the case of vultures, too, everyone spoke about a virus scare. With 1 per cent of vultures left, we realised that diclofenac, used to treat cattle, is behind the deaths,” he said.
He said crows were winging behind vultures and eagles to oblivion.
Wildlife activist D.S. Srivastava said crows were friends of man. “They are scavengers who clean up pathogens from garbage near homes, protecting children and elderly who have less immunity,” said he.
Hazaribagh-based Satya Prakash, state co-ordinator of Indian Bird Conservation Network affiliated to NGO Bombay Natural History Society, said matters were not so serious. “The International Union for Conservation of Nature will declared crows as endangered only if deaths are reported across Asia. We need not worry about that. Let’s focus on imbalance in local environment,” said Prakash.