The black kites of Ghazipur: In pandemic world, scavenging birds may foretell new maladies

With thousands of migratory black kites sustained by the Ghazipur poultry market and landfill, scientists say both birds and humans can be affected by new disease outbreaks.

WrittenBy:Sidharth Singh
Kites at the aviary at Wildlife Rescue, a veterinary and rehabilitation clinic in Wazirabad.

As I strolled down Dr Hedgewar road in Delhi, I was tracing the shared boundary between the Ghazipur poultry market and the mountainous landfill where Delhi’s waste is dumped. The market disposes of its waste in the landfill too. But in addition to the garbage trucks that trawl the road between landfill and market, both areas are linked by the thousands of black kites that circle a shared sky.

The birds line the roofs of buildings, their aeries perched on the bars and poles of electric towers. They also dive into the landfill and the poultry market, snatching scraps of meat away from crows and stray dogs.

But now, zoologists say these juxtapositions in the Ghazipur area – an interface for many animals to interact amid biohazardous waste – might be ripe for the outbreak of new diseases.

In January this year, India witnessed the death of tens of thousands of birds after an epidemic of avian influenza (H5N1) broke out with the influx of migratory water-birds. Though all its poultry samples tested for bird flu returned negative, the Ghazipur market was temporarily closed by the Delhi government as a result.

Ghazipur’s kites are not native to the area. “In the absence of baseline data on our avifauna, a local is likely to think that the kites are local too. But most of the birds that form spectacular flocks are actually migratory,” said Dr Nishant Kumar, founder and a postdoctoral researcher of the Black Kite Project, a group of researchers studying human-kite interaction in Delhi.

The Black Kite Project’s central investigation is tagging black kites with GPS and studying their local movements and migratory routes. According to Kumar, who is also an ornithologist at Oxford University and the Wildlife Institute of India, “significant portions of the kite populations arrive from north of the Trans-Himalayas. These birds undertake journeys of more than 4,000 km, starting as far as Siberia”.

As a result, this increases the threat of disease transfer because the kites share migratory routes with other birds that are known to carry zoonotic pathogens.

“Kites stop every night in their journey that lasts about 14-20 days. So, in their daily movement of 200 km, kites can interact with several other birds which may carry virulent strains of avian influenza,” said Kumar. “There is definitely a threat of zoonotic disease here, considering the proximity with people, other birds, and poultry. Kites could potentially infect each other and other animals. We want to conduct research on these interactions soon.”

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Kites outside the market in Ghazipur.

Dr Abi Tamim Vanak, senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru, concurred. Vanak is a “one health researcher” – an interdisciplinary research framework that highlights the interconnected nature of animal, human, and environmental health, especially when it comes to zoonotic diseases.

“These diseases aren’t just limited to wet markets,” he said.” Unscientific disposal of bio-waste from poultry markets is a major contributor to zoonoses. Transboundary pathogens, markets full of different animals, poor sanitation and hygiene: these are the circumstances ripe for new diseases to emerge. Biosafety goes for a toss.”

So, what does this mean for one of the densest breeding populations of black kites globally to rely on an area ripe for outbreak, threatening birds and possibly people too?

Given the scientific consensus on the likely circumstances for new zoonotic diseases, the increasing outbreaks of avian influenza, and the probability of the coronavirus itself having animal origins, Newslaundry spoke with stakeholders to find out.

Waste is opportunity

The nexus at the Ghazipur market, reportedly one of the largest in Asia, has multiple branches. The fish market and the egg and poultry markets are handled by the Delhi government’s Fish Egg Poultry Marketing Committee, or FEPMC. The livestock market and the slaughterhouse are controlled by the East Delhi Municipal Corporation, or EDMC, which also has jurisdiction over the area comprising the landfill which is managed, not by the corporation’s public health department, but by its engineering department.

The solid waste material generated by the markets, slaughterhouse and their animals include wings, fish eggs, bones, claws, intestines, and paunch waste.

When asked how this waste is disposed of, Dev Raj, an assistant secretary at the FEPMC, said it’s sent to a waste-to-energy plant, not to the landfill. But separate from this, according to the weighment slips provided to garbage truck drivers, an average of 11 tonnes of additional garbage – such as blood-soaked feathers, excreta and litter – is sent to the landfill every day by the FEPMC alone.

Since 2016, there have been plans to build a bio-methanation plant in Ghazipur, according to Dr Mool Chand, director of the veterinary services department at the EDMC, to “process the acidic paunch waste of slaughtered cattle” from the slaughterhouse.

This has been delayed, however, after infrastructure firm IL&FS backed out of the project and was replaced by CED Company. For the time being, waste from the slaughterhouse still goes directly to the landfill.

The Black Kite Project’s Kumar pointed out that the sheer accumulation of thousands of animals in one place is itself an issue for management and waste disposal. Thousands of cattle are slaughtered at the slaughterhouse everyday, and lakhs of chickens at the poultry market. This is prime food for kites.

“It’s true that most parts of a chicken get used and are not disposed of. But if you have thousands of animals being slaughtered in one place everyday, then all their corresponding parts accumulate somewhere before leaving the market,” Kumar said. “Kites exploit these opportunities to great success. So much so that kites from faraway regions are making direct journeys straight to this market in winter.”

Even discarded feathers in the landfill are soaked in blood, Kumar said, and usually have meat attached to the ends. Similarly, entrails and dung mixed in blood, alongside carcasses, blood-mixed water, and discarded rotting fish, are all foraging opportunities.

Kumar and his team, arguably the only researchers working on black kites in urban ecologies in India, stressed multiple times on the possibility of this interface with migratory birds leading to new diseases.

“It might not be a new coronavirus but we can’t know what impact new diseases could have from these interactions till they are studied,” Kumar said. “It could have a devastating impact on the ecology that has developed in the area, which includes thousands of people linked via social, economic, cultural and ecological processes.”

Authorities and workers on the ground, however, remain sceptical of a disease threat to the birds or to themselves. The kites are not thought of as migratory.

When I spoke to M Faizal, who works as a butcher in the poultry market, he said, “We keep hearing about this disease, that disease breaking out. Bird flu or something else. But nothing ever happens to us.”

Chickens being unloaded at the poultry market.
Black kites tagged by researchers in Mongolia.

M Saleem Qureshi, general secretary of the Ghazipur Wholesaler Poultry Market Association, acknowledged the threat of bird flu. But he said, “Yes, towards the winter, virus-carrying waterfowl migrate to lakes in Delhi. But those birds don’t come here. And there is no reason for waterbirds to directly interact with poultry, which is how these viruses are transferred. They do not affect people either.”

He added that random poultry samples are regularly tested at the market for bird flu, and that the black kites have been around for generations, so the threat of disease is largely overrated.

Scientific endeavour and wildlife rescue

With thousands of livelihoods orbiting the Ghazipur market along with the kites, the path forward, according to the Black Kite Project, is not to dismantle the market or attack the birds, but to conduct dedicated scientific analysis. Kites have always migrated but it’s urbanisation that is changing their routes and behaviour.

“The idea is not to prove that kites are infected or not, or that the market and landfill have to go,” Kumar said. “These associations between people and animals are set now, and urban ecology is sensitive. These kites might already be infected; imagine if the lakhs of kites here are forced to disperse and then interact with other animals, because one day this ecosystem is no more!”

He continued, “We need to do genetic profiling of host-pathogen association, and then compare this with pathogens like influenza viruses in other birds. Properly establish and analyse human impacted migratory routes. In light of Covid, we need to acquire data and be prepared.”

Along with the Black Kite Project’s research, brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, who run Wildlife Rescue, a veterinary and rehabilitation clinic in Wazirabad, have built with black kites a rich relationship based in science.

Since 2003, in addition to answering rescue calls, the brothers have located a number of clinics that turn away black kites. So, they simply collect the birds for treatment. They have no prior training and have learned through experience. From 2003 to 2018, they ran the clinic on profits from their primary business in soap dispensers. But now, it runs on donations.

“We have learned how diverse Delhi’s urban ecology is over the years,” said Nadeem. “We come across a number of birds that are not from Delhi, such as the scops owl [native to South India], in awkward places too. Once we handled a Eurasian griffon on the Delhi airport runway.”

Nadeem and Saud’s daily work involves going out to collect black kites and others birds – such as barn owls, Egyptian vultures, sparrow hawks, egrets, crows and even injured squirrels – to bring them to their clinic for treatment. This, with the aid of their veterinary assistant Salek, ranges from administering painkillers and other medication to surgery. The clinic maintains a painstaking record of all the injured birds they encounter.

Depending on the time of year, Nadeem and Saud find anywhere between 15 to 20 black kites for treatment in a day. On average, they treat over 2,000 kites annually. The majority of birds suffer from physical injuries caused by glass-covered kitestrings. Some cases are of disease.

According to the brothers, they treat a host of migratory black-eared kites. In 2017, they treated 1,883 black kites of which 30 were the black-eared migratory subspecies. By 2020, that number climbed to 98. Since they only record the injured or unwell kites that come to the clinic, the actual number of this subspecies of kites would be much higher.

“The forces for ornithological research in India are not unified,” Nadeem said. “The Bombay Natural History Society, Wildlife Institute of India – we find their tagged birds all the time. We record data and contact them but they never respond or use it. We have collected a lot of data now on black kites. We plan on opening a research wing and writing papers ourselves.”

“We have been abroad for some conferences and workshops too,” said Saud. “We have presented our techniques of surgery. We are going for another workshop in September.”

Nadeem and Saud’s first study will investigate mystery cases of black kites with infected feet. They’ve already catalogued pictures and shared them with researchers abroad. They suspect the cause to be black kites’ reliance on rotting meat in landfills but this is only a speculation; it has not been studied yet.

An Egyptian vulture among the kites at Wildlife Rescue's aviary.
A black kite from Siberia with a tag on its foot.
Saud treating a black kite.

“Overpopulation of any creature is concerning,” said Saud. “Since kites don’t have natural predators in cities – they can fend off cats and dogs, avoid monkeys, and they have ready food available in meat markets and landfills – their populations thrive here. They prefer urban ecology to wilderness.”

Funding remains a problem for Wildlife Rescue. “We receive next to nothing in India,” said Nadeem. “ But there is some value for veterinary work in the US. We must be 50 years behind the world in terms of veterinary science for birds.”

Sensitivity in science

Despite the evident success of black kites in cities, which can be evidenced through a skyward glance from most parts of Delhi, the study of black kites in India, according to the Black Kite Project and Wildlife Rescue, remains lacking.

Black kites have become inextricable from human existence and, as in the case of Wildlife Rescue, have come to impact the lives of people in a deeper sense. Notably, in Muslim-dominant colonies across Delhi, black kites are specially fed meat as Sadaqah (voluntary charity in Islam). This too is a primary source of food for resident kites that do not leave Delhi in the summer months.

Kumar highlighted the need to proceed sensitively in studies on human and animal relationships operating around waste systems. “We want to imagine waste to energy plants as clean alternatives, but people working there handle the waste by hand, with inadequate protection. And for some reason, the same meat from Ghazipur becomes hygienic in Khan market.”

With an intricate nexus of dependence across species in urban environments such as Ghazipur, and a threat of disease outbreaks, scientists say it is vital now to recognise that our well-being is connected to animal well-being and understanding. It’s important to accordingly study and frame policies in line with the “one health” approach.

Given that Covid likely has zoonotic origin, I asked Vanak at ATREE what he made of the media’s coverage of zoonoses, and his thoughts on the word “zoonotic” going out of the news cycle quickly last year. He said this is the wrong question.

“When it comes to zoonotic viruses, it is more important to ask what governments do and not really what individuals understand or imagine,” he said. “Chinese lab-leaks should be investigated. But there is widespread consensus that zoonoses from animal markets and biodiversity loss pose a threat to us anyway. What are governments doing about it? About healthy animal treatment? Not nearly enough.”

A few days ago, I walked out of the Ghazipur slaughterhouse, cordoned off from the market by a black gate, across the sprawling lawns leading up to the MCD office buildings. As I walked under a jungle jalebi tree next to a footpath, an entrail fell splat from its canopy as a kite took off and left the rotten meat on the ground. As flies swarmed to devour it, it was evident that Vanak was correct.

Also see
article imageThe Ghazipur landfill: A hill as high as Qutub Minar
article image‘Last nail in our coffin’: Businesses in Ghazipur’s meat market feel ‘crushed’ by Covid, lockdown


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