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Chickens in rice sacks buried alive in shallow pits

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In affected areas in Thailand, soldiers and prisoners have been drafted to tie birds up in tattered old rice sacks and bury them alive in shallow pits before the virus spreads further.

Cry fowl: how killer birds flu the coop
Feb 21
James Hookway | Wall St Journal | Bangkok

Vichian Tansiri picks his way among dozens of domed wicker baskets in his dusty backyard, wondering how long he can keep shielding from health officials the prize-fighting roosters scratching and squawking inside.

Governments across Asia have ordered the slaughter of tens of millions of chickens since the outbreak of bird flu was detected last month.

The disease has passed to humans in two countries, Thailand and Vietnam, killing at least 19 people. It has spread to chickens in 10 other nations.

But Vichian, 71, has more reason to avoid the slaughter than most other farmers: his chickens are valuable fighting cocks, richly plumed roosters prized across Asia.

So far, Vichian's neighbourhood has escaped being declared an infected area.

When not in the ring, fighting cocks can come into contact with other birds. The World Health Organisation and other international health officials urge the swift culling of all birds in affected areas to contain the H5N1 bird flu virus before it mutates into a form that can be directly transmitted between humans, potentially creating a dangerous influenza pandemic. In affected areas in Thailand, soldiers and prisoners have been drafted to tie birds up in tattered old rice sacks and bury them alive in shallow pits before the virus spreads further.

But breeders of fighting roosters are taking evasive action.

In Chiang Saen, a busy river port on the northern border with Laos, some took their warriors underground last week when the area was declared an infected zone.

"I took my birds inside because I didn't want to see them die," said a 43-year-old man who identified himself as Boonchu.

Thais are adept at encouraging all sorts of unlikely beasts to fight each other and betting on the outcome, and the country's fighting cocks rule the roost. Supported by their own powerful lobby, many Thai roosters have so far evaded the slaughter.

This suggests that ridding the region of all potential carriers, as the WHO recommends, will not be simple.

To a breeder who has invested thousands of dollars and many years in developing pedigreed warriors, a bird's life might seem to be worth more than preventing the advance of a dangerous disease. Vichian, a village headman in Bangkok's suburb of Nong Chok, has bred birds that fetch as much as $US2500 (3167).

"We have spent more than 100 years breeding these roosters, and we can now say they are the best in the world," Vichian says while sipping iced water in a living room adorned with framed front pages from glossy cock-fighting magazines.

"Our fighting cocks are popular in many other countries - in Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. Killing them could mean the end of the blood line."

Local officials worry that if a slaughter is ordered, breeders may simply hide their expensive wards or smuggle them into uninfected areas, thereby risking a fresh outbreak of the virus.

The defiance goes to the financial heart of the problem in combating a disease such as bird influenza.

Hans Wagner, of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Office in Bangkok, says money is critical to containing the spread of the virus.

"If the level of compensation is insufficient, the farmers will not carry out the culls," he says.

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