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Bird flu suspected in Himachal Pradesh as 1,800 migratory birds die at Pong wetland

With the toll of migratory water birds rising to over 1,800, and almost half of them being endangered, the Himachal Pradesh wildlife authorities on Monday suspected avian influenza as the cause.

Chief Conservator Wildlife of Pong wetlands – one of the largest in northern India, Upasna Patyal, told IANS the reason for the deaths is still a mystery. Their carcasses have been sent to different laboratories to determine the cause of death.

"The death of birds could be attributed to bird flu. We are expecting to get results by Tuesday evening. As a protocol, we have imposed prohibitory orders," she said.

The local administration has already sounded an alert by banning all the human activities within 10-km radius of the Pong wetlands in Kangra district.

The bird flu can spread to human beings and turn fatal.

Besides the bar-headed goose, the other species were the shoveler, the river tern, the black-headed gull and the common teal.

Some birds — including the bar-headed goose — were seen acting strangely before their deaths, she said.

"When you're seeing that birds are not able to take the flight despite healthy wings, it's really disturbing. At some distance, you find their carcasses," she said.

The bird carcasses were sent to the Indian Veterinary Research Institute in Bareilly, the Regional Disease Diagnostic laboratory in Jalandhar and the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun to know their cause of death.

The Rajasthan government last week sounded an alert after confirmation of avian influenza in crows that died in Jhalawar district. Indore in Madhya Pradesh has also reported death of crows.

The mass mortality of poultry birds was reported at one of the largest poultry belt at Barwala near Panchkula in Haryana.

According to the Bird Count India, a partnership comprising organizations and groups, over the past seven-10 days there have been reports of wild birds dying in separate incidents at different locations in the country.

That wild birds die is not necessarily worrying. But it is possible that some of these recent deaths are out of the ordinary, with large numbers dying or reports of diagnoses of H5N1 (avian influenza).

At the moment, no-one knows whether these are causes of larger concern, but it is worth keeping an eye on the situation, it said.

"If you encounter a wild bird that is dead or dying, do not approach it, and under any circumstances do not touch it given the possibility (however small) that it might be infected with avian influenza. H5N1 is a highly contagious virus that can cause severe illness in people," it warned.

Sensing gravity of the situation, Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) scientist K. S. Gopi Sundar told IANS that it's something an alarming situation.

"We are getting reports of death of birds in nature across India. It's likely to be a disease because the deaths are occurring in multiple locations involving multiple species. It is a dangerous situation and needs multi-stakeholder intervention on priority," he said.

At the Pong wetlands, preliminary findings of their post mortem have ruled out poisoning as the cause of their death, wildlife officials said.

Every winter, the Pong wetlands are home to over 100,000 birds of nearly 114 species. Among them the bar-headed goose, the northern pintail, the Eurasian coot, the common teal, the common pochard, the northern shoveler, the great cormorant, the Eurasian wigeon and the ruddy shelduck are notable.

According to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), the Pong wetlands are the one wintering grounds in the globe to hold such a large congregation of bar-headed geese.

Most of the wetlands in India have been regularly getting bar-headed geese every winter. But Pong is the only habitat that holds the largest influx of bar-headed geese every winter, a BNHS ornithologist told IANS.