We were walking around a stupa at Boudhanath when a dead pigeon fell out of the sky.
A woman from a nearby temple walked over and nonchalantly picked it up, flipping it over as if to see if someone had tied a message to its legs. A nearby security officer looked at it with her. Nearby, a cluster of pigeons washed themselves in a puddle left in a hole in the pavement after a recent bout of monsoon rain.
A restaurant in Bhaktipur had told me a day before that I couldn’t have the chicken momos- a kind of Tibetan dumpling. I got the buffalo instead.
Scattered across the claustrophobic and maze-like streets of Kathmandu there are street chickens, tiny feathered obstacles for the crammed traffic of street vendors, rickshaws, speeding taxis and pedestrians.
Amongst the leaning buildings, with their antique brickwork and elaborate wood-carved window frames, and the piles of rubble Nepalis call sidewalks, there are butcher shops. First you smell the pungent scent of a goat and then you see it, in a wide open-air garage, splayed out and exposed to the pedestrians and hungry street dogs.
There is no glass here, just open garage doors and tables, sometimes jutting into the street, covered in the limbs of goats or chickens.
You will see boys on bicycles riding by with fresh killed unplucked chickens dangling from their handlebars like beaked and clawed streamers.
Around these shops are their surviving brethren, picking about in piles of street trash for the left-behind bits of betel nuts or popcorn from snack vendors on the move.
I had noticed a surprising number of dead birds, particularly crows, since arriving in Kathmandu, enough that I Googled it. The result seemed plausible enough: the birds all drank from puddles of stagnant water filled with human and animal waste, industrial run-off and car fluids. This is enough to kill even the most iron-stomached scavengers of the bird world, the gray-haired crows of Nepal and that universally adaptive bird-roach, the pigeon.
The next morning, though, I couldn’t help but wonder when I saw the announcement of a bird-flu epidemic in Kathmandu Valley.
We left Kathmandu that day for a pre-planned five-day stint in Polkhara and Lumbini. We returned to a chickenless city. You could not find hen nor rooster in the streets of Kathmandu.
What had once been a city of street chickens had now become a city of men and women in the black-and-blue camouflage of the Nepali police force. Seven of them were standing on the street outside of our hostel holding machine guns.
The Nepalese Government had declared a state of emergency, and the newspaper reported that the military had been given orders to kill street chickens on sight, that is, “to cull chickens indiscriminately.”
The chickens had gone into hiding.
The War on Birds
A “state of emergency” and deployment of armed guards in the capital of a third-world semi-communist nation is incredibly unnerving, even if the enemy is diseased poultry.
In the five days since we had left the city, 500,000 chickens had been killed and 62 infected birds discovered.
Farmers and butchers had been ignoring the government’s demands to cease the movement and selling of chickens, which the government says made the state of emergency necessary. The government declared to the press today that “Now, the poultry farmers have joined our battle.” One can imagine the armed military arriving at henhouses would contribute to that spirit of compliance.
The bird flu, H5N1, more or less only spreads between birds as a virus, but humans can contract it by inhaling bird shit or drinking water contaminated by bird shit, or through exposure to uncooked, infected chicken or eggs.
The real threat, though, is the chance that each outbreak contributes to a mutation in the disease- particularly, a mutation that might allow the bird flu to spread through human-to-human contact rather than the more difficult human-to-bird-shit form of transmission we have now. If a mutation occurs that gives this flu the power to spread through a cough or a sneeze, coupled with a novel virus that no human has developed an immunity to, it’s no exaggeration to say that humankind could easily face a threat on par with the plague.
Right now, as far as we know, that hasn’t happened outside of a laboratory. But given Nepal’s notoriously low standards for food safety and meat handling, the constant presence of street chickens both living and dead, a dense population in tight, cramped streets marked by pools of stagnant water shared by bathing birds and babies, and you have a striking picture of a perfect breeding place for the next global epidemic.
This post was uploaded using an iPhone in Nepal. Please forgive the resulting autocorrect errors. Also, I wrote a book, guys.