Cockfighters spread Asian killer bird flu

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2004:

BANGKOK, BEIJING–Cockfighters, cock
breeders, and public officials kow-towing to
them tried to pass the blame for spreading the
deadly H5N1 avian flu virus throughout Southeast
Asia to pigeons, sparrows, and even open-billed
Bad vaccines took some of the rap, too.
An attempt was even made, as the death
toll increased on factory farms, to attribute
the epidemic to free range poultry producers.
But as the H5N1 “red zones” expanded in
at least eight nations, the evidence pointed
ever more directly at commerce in gamecocks–and
at the efforts of cockfighters and cock breeders
to protect their birds from the culls and disease
outbreaks that had already killed more than 100
million chickens who were raised to lay eggs and
be eaten, as well as 22 people, most of them
The pattern of the H5N1 outbreak
paralleled the spread of exotic Newcastle disease
through southern California and into Arizona
between November 2002 and May 2003.
Approximately 3.7 million laying hens were killed
to contain the Newcastle epidemic, but USDA
investigators believe it began among backyard
fighting bird flocks, advancing as gamecocks
were transported between fights. It apparently
invaded commercial layer flocks through
contaminated clothing worn by workers who
participated in cockfighting.

Almost all of the early speculation about
the source of H5N1 outbreaks pointed toward wild
birds, even though the disease appeared to
spread most rapidly long after the fall
migrations were over and before the spring
migrations started.
“Migratory birds carry the disease,” WHO
spokesperson Bob Dietz unequivocally told Keith
Bradsher of The New York Times on January 26.
“The path of the disease appears to
follow the north/south winter migration pattern
of birds such as swallows, plovers, terns, and
egrets, from as far north as Siberia to
Australia in the south,” added South China
Morning Post correspondent Cheung Chi-Fai on
January 27–disregarding that H5N1 is not yet
known to have reached Australia.
“You have birds from all over the world
coming to Asia. They stop for a rest, and they
come into contact with other birds and other
animals and pass on their viruses,” explained
Chinese University microbiology professor John
Tam Siu-lun.
But Mai Po Nature Reserve conservation
manager Lew Young discounted the speculation.
“If wintering birds are responsible for the
spread [of H5N1], we should have seen it happen
already, as they have been arriving since
September last year,” Young told Cheung Chi-Fai.

Bad vaccines

New Scientist correspondent Debora
MacKenzie was another early skeptic. “The
currently circulating H5N1, like the related one
that caused an outbreak in Penfold Park, Hong
Kong, in 2003, is unique in that it kills ducks
as well as a variety of other birds,” wrote
MacKenzie. “This might make it less likely that
wild birds are mainly responsible for carrying
the virus over long distances.”
But MacKenzie in the February 11 edition
of New Scientist focused on failed agricultural
“Earl Brown, a flu virologist at the
University of Ottawa in Canada, compared the
genetic sequence of the virus isolated from a
Vietnamese person who died of bird flu in January
2004 to other gene sequences,” MacKenzie
“Five of the eight [DNA] strands were 96%
to 99% identical to an H5N1 flu virus found in
duck meat smuggled from eastern China and
intercepted in Taiwan in 2003. The remaining
three were 98% the same as sequences obtained
from a goose in Hong Kong in 2000.
“Geese and ducks in Hong Kong are
imported from large, intensive poultry producers
in Guangdong, China,” MacKenzie reminded.
This is where H5N1 is believed to have originated
each time it has appeared.
Brown’s findings strengthened earlier
reports from scientists at the National Institute
of Animal Health in Japan, who found a close
relationship among the Viet-namese H5N1 virus, a
version found in a Guangdong goose in 1996, and
a version that in 2003 killed a Hong Kong man who
had recently visited Guangdong.
Flu virologist Richard Webby, of St
Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis,
Tennessee, told MacKenzie that, “We have a
bucket of evolution going onĊ  H5 is circulating
fairly widely somewhere, under some kind of
unusual selective pressure.”
“The explosion in variation,” MacKenzie
wrote, “coincides with the period during which
Chinese farmers have practiced widespread
vaccination of chickens against flu. In 2003,
scientists who developed an improved flu vaccine
for poultry, including Robert Webster of St
Jude’s, concluded that such vaccination “may be
a serious problem for human pandemic
preparedness,” because the vaccines “might mask
disease signs while allowing the birds to
continue to shed virus.”
Therefore, Webster et al suggested in
the journal Virology, “persistence of virus
infection in the presence of a flock immunity may
contribute to increased virus evolution.”
The failed vaccination theory was
reinforced a week later when the Shanghai Daily
reported that 23-year-old college graduate Li
Zhongcheng and his wife, of central Henan
province, had been arrested for selling 944
bottles of homebrewed avian flu-related vaccines,
of dubious quality, since 2001.
They were almost certainly not the only
people with similar businesses. Hundreds may
have done the same thing, throughout Southeast
Asia, where regulation of the pharmaceutical
industry is notoriously lax.
Bad vaccines produced for years in
relatively trivial amounts by scattered
individuals could explain why so many chickens
appeared to be so suddenly vulnerable, but could
not fully explain why so many fell ill in so many
places and so short a time.
South China Morning Post Guangzhou
correspondent Leu Siew Ying on January 31
asserted, without quoting any experts, that
free range poultry farms “could well be the weak
link in Guangdong’s defense against bird flu.”
Allowing chickens to range freely, Leu Siew Ying
argued, means “they are exposed to migratory
birds and cross-infection from diseased birds on
nearby farms. Quarantine measures look
impressive on paper and are being implemented at
large farms,” Leu Siew Ying wrote, “but there
is little such security at smaller farms.”
Leu Siew Ying continued that biosecurity
was further jeopardized when small-scale poultry
farmers sold manure as fertilizer, ignoring that
manure from large-scale Southeast Asia poultry
farms is distributed as fertilizer and pig and
cattle feed in vastly greater volume, with
correspondingly greater likelihood of becoming a
disease vector.
“I am disgusted by academia, industry
and government trying to blame wildlife for
problems caused by intensive agriculture,”
responded Farmed Animal Watch electronic news
digest editor Mary Finelli in an e-mail to ANIMAL
“Farmed animals are bred for production
traits at the expense of their immune systems,”
Finelli continued, “and then are put into prime
disease generating conditions. To blame H5N1 on
wild birds [and free-range chickens] when
megatons of manure from factory farms is being
spread all over cropland is a classic case of
blaming the victims.”

Crows & pigeons

As suspicion of wild birds intensified,
and H5N1 appeared at a duck farm about 30 miles
away, Shanghai barred bird-watchers from three
local nature reserves.
Singapore environment ministry
spokesperson Satish Appoo told Emma Ross of
Associated Press on January 29 that his
department would escalate efforts to kill
non-native Indian house crows, claiming to have
already reduced the crow population “from 120,000
in 2001 to about 30,000.”
Thai permanent secretary for natural
resources and the environment Plodprasop
Suraswadi told the Thai News Agency that while
the risk of contracting avian flu from wild birds
was low, citizens should refrain from feeding
wild birds, including sparrows and pigeons.
On January 30 deputy Bangkok governor
Prapan Kitisin, whose administration tried
unsuccessfully in 2003 to rid the central city of
dogs, followed Singapore in announcing a mass
pigeon cull. Kitisan also ordered that guano be
washed off the awnings covering outdoor food
vendors’ stalls and vehicles.
Not so much as one speck of bird dirt
actually associated pigeons with H5N1, but the
panic turned in their direction anyway.
On February 4, the China State General
Administration of Sport suspended all training,
races, exchanges, and sales of homing pigeons
between China, Thailand, Japan, the Republic
of Korea, and Taiwan. The Beijing Homing Pigeon
Association ordered more frequent disinfection
and immediate clearance of excrement and
feathers. The Shanghai Racing Pigeon Association
grounded all 400,000 local homing pigeons. The
Beijing association grounded more than a million.
February would usually be the peak pigeon
training time, in preparation for the pigeon
racing season, which begins in March.
More than 23,000 households in Beijing and 8,000
in Shanghai keep racing pigeons. Nationally,
the China Association of Carrier Pigeons claims
300,000 members.
“An official surnamed Yang with the bird flu
control team under the Agriculture Ministry said
researchers had yet to develop a vaccine for
pigeons, which should be different from those
used for consumer poultry at least in dosage,”
the Xinhua News Agency said.
“Yang said Beijing had reported no pigeon
infections and there was no scientific proof to
support the possibility of virus transmission
from pigeons to humans. However, many advocate
the eradication of pigeons because of the large
amounts of excrement they produce,” the Xinhua
News Agency acknowledged.
In other words, pigeon-haters seized
their opportunity, irrespective of the evidence.
In Thailand, where the pigeon-blaming
began, pigeons were officially exonerated on
February 17. “None of the pigeons that fly over
Bangkok’s skies have been found to be infected
with bird flu,” natural resources and environment
minister Prapat Panyachatraksa told The Nation.

Storks & cranes

Storks and cranes, on the other hand,
were demonstrably afflicted. They were also
falling dead. But while they could potentially
carry H5N1, experts observed, there was no
reason to believe that they already had.
H5N1 “is a major threat to a number of endangered
bird species and I fear it could get a lot
worse,” acknowledged ornithologist Chris Cook to
South China Morning Post Toyko correspondent
Julian Ryall. “Right now, 80% of East Asia’s
white-necked cranes are wintering in Japan,”
Cook added. “It’s just a matter of weeks before
the spring migrations start, and there’s no way
anyone can stop these birds from flying from one
country to the next.”
“Test results showed three migratory
Asian open-billed storks that died in Nakhon
Sawan had H5N1,” wrote Ranjana Wangvipula of the
Bangkok Post on February 14, “but authorities
said it was unlikely they had carried this
virulent strain from abroad.
“Hundreds of open-billed storks have died
at Bung Boraphet swamp in Nakhon Sawan and
Bangkok’s Lat Krabang district,” Ranjana
continued, “where poultry infected with bird flu
were found. An official said the mass death of
storks had prompted the agriculture ministry to
demand that up to 20,000 migratory open-billed
storks be killed.”
Nakhon Sawan forestry management chief
Vorawit Chue-suwan told Supamart Kasem of the
Bangkok Post that killing the remaining storks
would be the only option if the carcasses proved
to be carrying H5N1, but warned that the job
would be difficult, as the storks would resist
“A study is needed to find if the storks
caught the disease from chickens,” Thai natural
resources and environment minister Praphat
Panyachartrak said.
Praphat refused to order that wild storks
be culled, Ranjana said, “without sound
scientific proof that the storks were carriers of
the disease.”
Praphat pointed out that the open-billed storks
in Thailand migrate from Bangladesh, where avian
flu outbreaks have occurred, but not involving
H5N1 so far.
“We’d better tell Bangladesh to keep a
close watch on the birds on their return,”
Praphat added. The storks normally return to
Bangladesh in May.

Caged songbirds

Recalling the Chinese bird purges of the
Mao tse Tung era, when sparrows were wrongly
blamed for nine years of famine, Wildlife
Conservation Society vice president of wildlife
health Robert Cook on February 3 warned that,
“In almost all cases, eradication schemes are not
cost-efficient or effective means to reduce
disease spread, compared to health education,
sanitation, and controlling animal movement.”
Cook, WCS field veterinary program
director William Karesh, and WCS director of
hunting and wildlife trade issues Elizabeth
Bennett recommended that wild bird markets should
be permanently closed throughout Asia, and that
airlines should refuse to carry “large numbers of
animals over large distances for commercial
markets. The European Union has already banned
the import of pet birds from Asian countries
where avian flu has been detected,” the WCS
experts said.
“The wild bird trade in Asia is conducted
on an extremely large scale, and is highly
fluid,” explained Bennett. “The one common theme
is that wild birds are caught, sold and
transported in very large numbers, and that
effective controls, both in terms of laws and
enforcement of those laws, are currently weak
across much of Asia.”
Added Karesh, “The birds are caged in
stressful, unnatural and often unhygienic
conditions during transport and in the markets,
where they stand beak to beak with both wild and
domestic birds, and are handled by humans–all
providing the ideal conditions for transmission
of disease.”
The WCS team noted that according to
recent field investigations, “In Bangkok’s
weekend market, on 25 weekends in one year
alone, 70,000 birds representing 276 species
from Asia, Australia, Africa and South America
were sold. In a single market in Java,
Indonesia, between half a million and 1.5
million wild birds are sold each year.”
Philippine provincial officials began
warning the public to avoid contact with
migratory storks from China circa February 1.
When a crackdown on caged bird
trafficking came, of sorts, it consisted of a
February 9 announcement by Manila airport animal
quarantine office chief Davinio Catbagan that 353
lovebirds imported from the Netherlands by way of
Thailand on a Kuwait Airways flight had been
gassed and burned.
Imported without proper permits, the
lovebirds never left the aircraft, but could
have become infected when the doors were opened
in Thailand, Catbagan said.
Wild bird trafficking elsewhere in
Southeast Asia drew almost no notice.
But Kasetsart University veterinary
teaching hospital faculty member Kaset Sutasha
reinforced the Wildlife Conservation society
“The outbreak could be caused by the
smuggling of birds from places such as China and
other countries bordering Thailand,” Kaset told
The Nation, adding that “The movement of
fighting cocks, both in and out of the country,
might also be a cause.
“We have found a large number of
migratory birds who were poisoned or shot by
people who were frightened of the spread of bird
flu,” Kaset continued, but none of the dead
birds that Kaset examined had H5N1.
Added Wildlife Conservation Society
training and education coordinator Petch
Manopawitr, “Normally migratory birds frequent
wetlands, where you wouldn’t site a poultry


On February 12 Guangxi “senior animal
infection official” Bi Qiang and duck farmer
Huang Shengde predictably suggested that
sparrows, the all-purpose Chinese avian
villains, might have infected the ducks near
Dingdang who were the first birds in China
officially identified as ill with H5N1.
“This is the first time a Chinese
official has pointed to a possible reason for
Dingdang’s infection,” wrote Jason Leow of the
Straits Times China bureau.
But Agence France Press revealed the same
day that, “A Vietnamese dealer of fighting cocks
has tested positive for bird flu.”
Truong Trong Hoang, deputy director of health
information and education in Ho Chi Minh City,
said that the 22-year-old man was admitted to the
city Hospital for Tropical Disease on February 6.
He later died.
Grudgingly, officials throughout
Southeast Asia began to recognize that gamecocks
were perhaps the most important of all vectors in
transmitting H5N1 not only from place to place
but also–since gamecocks often are kept in
houses with humans, to safeguard them against
theft and tampering– from birds to people.

Finally gamecocks

While pigeons were purged despite the
absence of any evidence that they carried either
H5N1 or any other avian flu, gamecocks were not
totally ignored. Technically, all poultry were
included from the beginning in the Thai effort to
purge H5N1.
Yet even as other birds were killed by
the thousands, Bangkok cock breeders were
unofficially allowed a grace period of several
days to get their birds out of the city or at
least out of sight.
Thai agriculture minister Somsak
Thepsuthin claimed that his department had no
authority to kill gamecocks.
“Only if the Natural Resources and
Environment Ministry agrees to the culling of
birds can we kill them,” Somsak said.
“My ministry can deal only with birds who
are not infected,” environment minister Prapat
Panyachatraksa responded.
After days of buck-passing, and after
receiving direct orders from prime minister
Thaksin Shinawatra to kill all chickens within
three miles of Bangkok epidemic areas, Somsak
personally led several seizures of fighting cocks
on January 30.
“We will not let them do this. There is
no proof these cocks have bird flu. We are going
to eat them. That is better than letting them be
suffocated,” cock breeder Surat Boonchea, 64,
told Straits Times Thailand correspondent Nirmal
Other gamecock breeders reportedly did
eat about 10 of their birds in public protest.
But at Surat Boonchea’s facility all that
happened, Ghosh wrote, was that “A Buddhist
monk placed incense sticks in the cane baskets
and gave a last blessing to the more than two
dozen fighting cocks” who were taken from Surat
to be killed. Seventy-seven gamecocks in all
were seized that day and hurled into an
Somsak told Jintana Panyaavudh of The
Nation that he felt pain at having to kill his
own favorite pet fighting cock, to set a
personal example of obedience to the law.
“In my life I have never killed any
animals,” said deputy prime minister Somkid
Jatusripitak, after killing his son’s pet
bantams. “I felt very terrible and kept thinking
that I should not have raised the bantams.
However, I told myself that the chickens had to
be culled to save people’s lives.”
Around Phitsanulok, an epi-center of
H5N1 outbreaks 600 miles north of Bangkok,
nearly 4,000 cock breeding families resisted
compliance with cull orders.
“Apparently in favor of local people,
livestock officials in Phitanulok have not asked
police to set up a checkpoint to prevent cocks
from being smuggled out. The officials have not
contacted the army to ask soldiers to catch the
cocks,” the Bangkok Post reported.
Amid the governmental deference to cock
breeders, almost no one other than Thai Animal
Guardians Association chair Roger Lohanon ever
mentioned in print that most cockfighting is
technically illegal in Thailand, under a 1982
Interior Ministry regulation adopted to endorce
the 1935 Gambling Act. The 1982 regulation
limited cockfighting to about 70 then established
pits in Chonburi, Nonthaburi, and parts of the
Thai northeast.
The H5N1 pandemic should have slammed the
brakes on efforts led by parliamentary committee
for agriculture leader Kamsung Propakornkaewrat
to repeal the 1982 regulation. Yet even as the
virus spread in late November, Kamsung led a
seminar on expanding cockfighting, and told
Lohanon to shut up when Lohanon appeared,
uninvited, to address the hostile audience.
Cockfighting and transportation of
gamecocks were at last suspended nationwide in
Thailand on February 3.
Yukol Limlaemthong, director-general of the
Thailand Livestock Development Department, on
February 10 told Saowalak Pumyaem of The Nation
that all fighting cocks would soon have to be
registered and certified, and would have to be
raised in confinement.
”Controlling the epidemic in the capital
is now beyond the ministry’s competence due to
strong opposition from owners of fighting cocks,
who keep hiding their birds away from livestock
officials,” deputy agriculture minister Newin
Chidchob told Kultida Samabuddhi of the Bangkok
On February 17, The Nation reported,
Chidchob exasperatedly ordered his staff to cull
all fowl within 14 newly declared “red zone”
epidemic areas within three days, or else.
Chidcob said that fighting cocks were the H5N1
carriers in 13 of the 14 areas.
One of the new “red zone” areas was in
Roi Et province, previously unaffected. “We’ve
found that one fighting cock contracted the
disease and later learned that its owner in fact
smuggled it out of a controlled area to avoid
culling,” Chidcob told Uamdao Noikorn of
Associated Press.

Cockers fight cops

Indonesia, which may have even more
illegal cockfighting than Thailand, had already
attempted a crackdown of sorts even before
acknowledging that a seven-month losing battle
against a “Newcastle” outbreak was in truth an
attempt to stop H5N1.
Official reluctance to cull chickens in
Indonesia after the H5N1 epidemic was recognized
was widely attributed to the influence of major
poultry producers, but major producers in other
nations were among the first to start culling,
in hopes of halting avian flu before the flu
halted commerce in chicken meat and eggs.
Of perhaps greater concern to Indonesian
authorities, especially on Bali, the
hardest-hit island, was rioting that erupted on
January 23 in Denpasar, after Commander Agus
Sugianto led a police raid on a cockfight at the
Dalem Temple.
Cockfighting persists on Bali, Papua,
Maluku, and some other islands in the thin
disguise of being a Hindu ritual called Tabuh Rah.
Cockfighters and spectators told Jakarta
Post correspondent Wahyoe Boediwardhana that,
“Without prior warning, the police fired three
shots before storming into the hall, screaming
loudly while beating and kicking everybody,”
allegedly seizing the gamblers’ money and
cellular telephones.
After one cockfighting enthusiast
“managed to scale the temple tower and sound the
alarm,” Boediwardhana wrote, “hundreds of
villagers surrounded the temple and started
throwing stones at the police,” who “hurriedly
left with at least 28 confiscated cocks.”
Four truckloads of cockfighters drove to
the Denpasar police station to confront Senior
Commander Komang Udayana. Udayana admitted
ordering the raid and claimed the confiscations
of money and telephones were to preserve evidence
of betting.
Leading a province and a nation often
torn by ethnic and regional strife, the
governments of Bali and Indonesia undoubtedly
weighed the body count that might result from
uncontrolled H5N1 against the casualties of
rioting and even insurrection, before opting for
discretion over valor.

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