- The pig farming sector in Assam has been hit hard by African Swine Fever which is a highly contagious viral disease that affects both domestic and wild pigs.
- The outbreak of African Swine Fever in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh was confirmed on May 1 by National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases (NIHSAD) in Bhopal after samples sent from those two states tested positive.
- The unorganised farmers who rear pigs in their backyards have been most affected because of the lack of stringent bio-security measures on their farms.
Bidarva Rajkhowa, a pig breeder, is a worried man these days. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t keep the dreaded African Swine Fever (ASF) away from his Rajkhowa Pig Breeding Farm in Lakhimpur district of Assam, which he had set up in 2008.
On May 13, the disease reached his farm. Initially, two sows and two piglets died from the disease on his farm. Subsequently, the disease spread to such an extent that Rajkhowa had to take the tough decision of culling 32 of his animals to contain the spread to nearby farms. His farm is said to be the first commercial pig farm in Lakhimpur district to be affected by the disease.
Speaking to Mongabay-India, Rajkhowa said: “Since news started coming out about pigs dying from ASF in Assam, I took all the possible measures to increase bio-security and maintain hygiene in my farm. Despite that, the disease has entered my farm. We have buried the carcasses of the pigs that have died, as per protocol, and we are also disinfecting the place regularly. But still, more and more pigs have started showing symptoms of the disease. They have stopped eating.”
“I have got 305 pigs on my farm. I have isolated the animals showing symptoms but if the virus reaches the rest of them, I will be ruined,” rued Rajkhowa, adding he imported pigs from Nepal and he is now facing a loss of Rs. 52 lakh.
Lakhimpur is one of the 10 districts in Assam that have been affected by ASF.
According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the infections in domestic pigs in northeast India (Assam and Arunachal Pradesh) are the first occurrences of the disease in the country.
ASF is a highly contagious hemorrhagic viral disease with almost a hundred percent mortality rate. While many signs of ASF and Classical Swine Fever (CSF) might be similar, the ASF virus is unrelated to the CSF virus. Some of the symptoms of ASF are high fever, depression, anorexia and loss of appetite, hemorrhages in the skin (redness of skin on ears, abdomen, and legs), abortion in pregnant sows, cyanosis, vomiting, diarrhoea and death within 6-13 days (or up to 20 days).
The disease can be transmitted through direct contact with the infected pigs as well as through indirect contact like ingestion through contaminated materials like food waste, feed and garbage; contaminated fomites, and biological vectors.
Once introduced, ASF spreads quickly through human activities and quickly becomes endemic in domestic pigs. Extremely challenging is the capacity of the virus to circulate in populations of wild boar, and via ticks. ASF virus is resistant and remains infectious for months in pork products and more than 1000 days in frozen pork. Humans play a major role in the short and long-distance introduction and spread of the virus, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation.
In August 2018, the outbreak of ASF was confirmed in China and since then it has been reported from many Asian countries like Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Republic of Korea, and Indonesia. As per a statement from the Agriculture and Animal Husbandry minister of Assam, Atul Bora, the disease is suspected to have entered India via the eastern border of Arunachal Pradesh.
The first case in Assam was reported from Jonai in Dhemaji district. The outbreak of ASF in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh was confirmed on May 1 by the National Institute of High-Security Animal Diseases (NIHSAD) in Bhopal after samples sent from those two states to the institute tested positive. As per the latest reports, 15,346 pigs in Assam and 2,253 in Arunachal Pradesh have died from the disease.
To cull or not to cull
With no approved vaccination available to treat the disease, culling is being considered to contain the spread of the outbreak. While the central government has reportedly advised the Assam government to go ahead with the culling, the state government is yet to take a decision on the matter.
Pulin Das, director, Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Department (AH and VD) said, “We are mulling on whether we should go ahead with the culling. We have asked for financial support from the central government as in the case of culling, we will have to pay huge amounts as compensation to farmers and farm owners.”
Das informed Mongabay-India that as per government guidelines, a farmer gets compensation of Rs. 34,000 for sows, Rs. 25,000 for boars, and Rs. 13,500 for piglets (per animal).
Das said the lockdown due to COVID-19 has been a blessing in disguise because the restriction in movement contained the spread to some extent. “The main reason behind the initial spread was because many people dumped the carcasses of the infected pigs in the river. That trend has certainly decreased now.”
Swaraj Rajkhowa, director of Pig Research Center of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) said, “Throughout the world, culling is considered an important part of the prevention set up for a disease like ASF. To minimise the outbreak, it is important to classify the area into zones. An area of 1 km radius from the epicenter where the disease originated will be known as infection zone while an area of 10 km radius from the epicenter will be known as a surveillance zone.”
“In the surveillance area, random samplings will be taken and if the presence of the disease is found, it will become an infected area. In that case, culling will take place as per government guidelines. However, there will be variations depending on the situation. For example, if we find a farm in a surveillance area that is well maintained and devoid of any signs of the outbreak, that farm might not see any culling.”
As per the latest developments, the culling compensation package is now on the verge of being finalised for Assam though there is no clarity on when the actual culling will start. Government sources, the state government will bear 50 percent cost of the package while the remaining 50 percent will be borne by the central government.
A committee has been formed by the state government to monitor the situation.
Apart from that, the AH and VD has also released guidelines for the farmers, like enhancing bio-security in their farms, not dumping carcass in open spaces and water bodies and burying the carcasses in a six feet deep trench, among others. The department has also restricted the trade and consumption of pork in the affected districts and started a toll-free number 1962 for the farmers.
Plight of farmers
Pig rearing and farming play an important role in the rural economy of Assam and so, the outbreak of ASF has been a huge blow to the people associated with the trade. As per the 2019 census, Assam had over 21 lakh pigs, though as per authorities, the number has now touched 30 lakh.
Bikash Konwar, a small pig farmer from Konwar Gaon village in Lakhimpur had taken a personal loan of Rs. 300,000 (Rs. 3 lakh) this year to upgrade his farm. His farm has been devastated by ASF: out of 44 pigs on his farm, only 13 have survived.
Konwar said, “I am at my wit’s end thinking what to do now. I don’t have any other source of income other than the piggery. It was doing very well until the lockdown. But in the last two months, I haven’t earned a dime from it. Now, I don’t know how I will pay my loan back.”
Manoj Basumatary, president, North East Progressive Pig Farmers’ Association (NEPPFA) says that the pork market of Assam is worth Rs. 60-80 billion (Rs. 6000-Rs. 8000 crores) annually and the state has already lost close to Rs. 10 billion (Rs. 1000 crores) in the past two months. 300 pig farmers from the northeast are members of NEPPFA.
He said, “Till now, the loss among farmers has been huge. The unorganised farmers who rear pigs in their backyards have been most heavily hit because bio-security practices are not much prevalent among them. As per my information, eight of our commercial piggery farms have also been affected. In fact, these farms are also in an evolving stage and don’t have very high biosecurity measures. This is what happened in Vietnam as well. Because of the lack of proper biosecurity measures, the disease spread so much that six million pigs had to be culled ultimately in Vietnam.”
Basumatary, himself has a pig farm called Symbiotic Foods Private Limited near Tezpur, which he says is the biggest in the region with 1000 pigs.
Commenting on the manner in which the government has tackled this crisis, he said, “The first rule to tackle an outbreak is speed which I think is lacking here. Till now, the government has tested a very small number of samples. They have neither declared the affected areas as hotspots/affected zones nor have they decided to go ahead with the culling of infected pigs, which should have been done as per OIE guidelines.”
Confusion over identical symptoms of Classical Swine Fever (CSF) and ASF has also added to misinformation among the pig farmers. Basumatary said: “One major difference between CSF and ASF is in case of ASF, there is fall in temperature before the onset of clinical sign whereas, in case of CSF, there is no fall in temperature. But it is difficult to distinguish between the two diseases. This is why we think that the unofficial toll of livestock dying from ASF might be much higher because in many cases, a farmer might not report the death thinking the pig died from CSF.”
“Now, farmers are in a fix because, on one hand, they are unable to sell their pigs while they are also spending a hefty amount for the food and maintenance of these animals. The longer this situation continues, the population in the farm will go on increasing and more pigs will be at the mercy of the virus.”
Bio-security is currently the buzzword in the pig farms with every farmer trying to improve the hygiene and disease prevention in their respective farms. Anjan Nag, who owns a small farm in Tengakhat village, around 30 kms from Dibrugarh says, “I started my farm in February this year and I am giving a lot of stress on bio-security. I have one worker on the farm who maintains total hygiene. He wears a special uniform and gumboots when he is on the farm. We also use potassium water to clean the barn where the pigs live.”
Keeping the wild ones safe
While primarily it is the domestic pigs who have been the victims of ASF in northeast India so far, reports have come from Arunachal Pradesh about suspected death of wild boars from the disease.
Recently, six carcasses of wild boars including three piglets were found in a community forest at Lidor Soyit upstream of Sillie river, which is about 25 km from Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh’s East Siang district.
Tashi Mize, divisional forest officer (DFO), Pasighat told Mongabay-India, “Local villagers were practicing horticulture there when they found some rotten smell coming out. Investigating the source of the smell, they discovered two carcasses and informed us. We found four more carcasses in the area. Unconfirmed reports of wild boars dying from ASF are also coming from Upper Siang district. There are abundant numbers of wild boars in these forests and we have alerted the local community not to hunt boars.”
Kaziranga National Park (KNP) in Assam has a sizeable population of wild boars and the authorities are taking precautions to ensure the disease doesn’t affect them. Ramesh Chandra Gogoi, DFO, KNP said, “The wild boar population in KNP can be pegged at 15,000. Once the disease starts affecting wild boars, it will be very difficult to contain the spread inside the jungle. So, to prevent the disease from entering KNP, we have taken several precautionary measures. We have asked our riverside camps to ensure that no floating carcasses enter the park.”
“As pigs are reared in most villages in the fringe of the park, we are trying to ensure the domestic pigs don’t enter the park for grazing. In Agoratoli, we have a 2 km long trench which has been successful in keeping the pigs at bay. Also, as our veterinarians can become potential carriers, we have asked them not to attend to outside cases for the time being.”
There is no report of the wild population getting affected in Manas National Park (MNP). MNP is the home to the rare pygmy hogs. Amal Sarma, Director of MNP said, “We are keeping a strict vigil and monitoring the situation. Till now, the disease hasn’t entered the park. We have around 1200 wild boars in the park and around 200 pygmy hogs. Recently 14 pygmy hogs which were captive-bred in Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP) were successfully released in MNP.”
Migrants to the rescue
Recently Minister Atul Bora urged the youth who returned to Assam from other states due to COVID-19 pandemic to take up farming as a means of self-employment. NEPPFA suggested that the youth should be encouraged to come into the piggery sector.
Basumatary said, “Despite the huge losses due to ASF, the piggery sector is still a lucrative business here. I am sure that the situation will improve in the coming days and youth who are looking for a source of income after the pandemic should come to the piggery sector.”
Meanwhile, the Assam government has allowed certain relaxations in the consumption and selling of pork. Selling and consumption of pork are allowed in the districts unaffected by ASF and also in the affected districts excluding containment and surveillance zones. However, inter-district and inter-state buying, selling, and transfer of pork and pork products are yet to be permitted.
Banner image: Pig farmer Bikash Konwar preparing to bury a pig that died of ASF. Photo by Bikash Konwar.