Pandemic plausibilities at landscape level: case of High Asia

An invitation to join a bunch of ecologists who’re working in High Asia led to this perspective piece that traces plausibility of spillovers turning into pandemics in what is considered relatively low-risk (a literal “coldspot”) for zoonotic disease oubreaks due to its relatively sparse populations and large and unihabitable landscapes. However, as we argue rapid land-use change, macroeconomic (even geopolitical!) pressures could create new niches and open up vulnerabilities for spillover events.

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Birds of BR Hills

If you came for the checklist of birds of BR Hills, directly scroll to end of this post.

Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve

Map of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve showing BR Hills (marked as BRT WLS on map), north of the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve (marked Tailaimalai RF on map) and through Sathyamangalam, contiguous with Bandipur and Mudumalai Tiger Reserves (Image from Wikimedia Commons)


My journey with the Biligirirangaswamy temple hills (BR Hills) is an old one. It was during my medical school days, nearly 15 years back that I first went to the hills on a then trendy Yamaha RX 100 (2001 monsoon months). At the time, the frequency of buses were few and Veerappan was alive. Continue reading

Aint no pedia like Wikipedia

Gracula religiosa is the latin name of the Hill Myna, a beautiful bird seen along the Western Ghats and associated South Indian hills. It is one of the endemic birds here and has recently been elevated to a full species, and rechristened Southern Hill Myna. Not getting into the boring details of why this was done, and how this is relevant to anybody, the above image introduces you to the similar looking forms of this bird, found across several areas and islands in South and Southeast Asia. Now, whether these other forms are actually the brothers of the myna we see in places in the Western Ghats or cousins, once, twice or thrice removed is the boring taxonomic question. Pages and pages of literature are available on the above and lists are often updated. Particularly, bird families such as warblers are prone to causing confusion and consternation, both in the field as well as in literature!

Now, this beautiful illustration that is used in a small corner of the article on the hill myna is created by a volunteer editor and a friend for Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia…..the one that ‘anybody can edit’. Well, almost….and that is exactly the problem for Evgeny Morozov. In an article for the Boston Review, he presents his viewpoint on the way wikipedia is being run (or not run).

Illustrations like the one that Shyamal has created are created voluntarily and for illustrating wikipedia articles. However, the fact that people like Shyamal have put up these illustrations in Wikimedia commons under a license that permits anybody to use it, especially for non-commercial and educational purposes evokes intrigue and incomprehensibility for Morozov. He asks “Why do Wikipedians spend countless hours improving the site, often doing mundane, repetitive tasks they would never do for money?” It is a very well articulated question? And it would be too romantic of me to profess, greater common good or information equity as answers. While such lofty ideas do drive many contributions, many others are there for much more mundane reasons – geekiness, exercising authority and many others for sheer fun.

Wikimedia commons is an immense repository of over 5,000,000

Scan of the front page of an 1838 Danish newspaper

Scan of the front page of an 1838 Danish newspaper

images and media contributed by the same ragtag lot that is alluded to in the article by Morozov. These are today being used widely in schools, colleges, research presentations and to illustrate scientific work as well! The site encourages reuse, if necessary with modification in as many words! For me, this is an expression of information equity. An effort at bringing information of all kinds on a platform where it is easily usable by anybody, with no tags attached. Just that, if achieved, I would view any number of articles that happen on Wikipedia as just a fringe benefit. And what I see is much more than fringe, and a lot more than benefit.

Morozov’s rant on Wikipedia spurred a few thoughts of mine that are neglected in his piece.

Bureaucracy was expected

Morozov brings up the valid argument that bureaucracy is choking the cyclopaedia. No large institution was ever run as in a fly-by-wire manner in which small NGOs or garage-based companies are run. Bureaucracy is an expected consequence of such a mass collaboration. If you compare wikipedia to countries, it started off as a kingdom (very briefly in the beginning), progressed to run like a small NGO, then a garage-based company, but now the numbers are just too much! Yes, it does need a bureaucracy to sustain it. In the Mintzberg prism, this would be a transition of Wikipedia as an adhocracy initially into a mechanistic bureaucracy. Yes, it is unfortunate.

Growth of Wikipedia is plateauing

After the few million articles that got created, what did anybody expect? The development that is going to happen over the next few years is going to be much more on quality. Wikignomes go about improving citations, checking spellings, inserting quotations and italicising Latin names of biota. In isolation, all of these are ‘those mundane edits’ that Morozov talks about, but in summation, they add up to much more.

The demography of wikipedia

“Wikipedians are 80 percent male, more than 65 percent single, more than 85 percent without children, and around 70 percent of them are under the age of 30.” I am male, single, without a child and around 30! I am a fairly representative sample of a Wikipedian editor. Now, Morozov intends to portray this as a consequence of Wikipedia. I believe this to be the cause.

In July 2003 Lih joined the then-two-year-old encyclopedia, and within a few months became one of its administrators. (That a novice could move up so quickly illustrates how badly Wikipedia needed talent in its early days.)

Being an administrator is not an award for editing or a promotion of sorts. Morozov confuses the designation of admin on wikipedia to be that of a higher caste of editors, while in fact, many prolific content contributors are not admins. They don’t choose to be either. I will not get into this, but the wikipedia I see and the one he sees are quite different.

Experts are forced to engage in pointless debates with Wikipedia’s bureaucratic guardians, many of whom are persuaded only by hyper links, not cogent arguments.

Scientific collaboration and networking among professionals has increased many times through Wikipedia. Biologists across the world interact with others for identification of photographs. They share data, viewpoints and arguments. There are curators of leading museums among the editorial team at Wikipedia. These get missed out in the bad biographical articles that get picked up by the media. It is nice and easy to write a polemical piece by choosing the skeletons from Wikipedia’s cupboard (which is open for all to see, by the way), but not an easy task to appreciate the meticulousness with which several professionals and amatuers collaborate in this internally chaotic, but wonderful exercise….a bit like…ahem…life itself. In an era, where divorces between erstwhile lovers is so high, how could anybody expect seamless co-existance of a few thousand editors from across the globe writing on issues from Palestine conflict to fellatio in fruit bats!

That Wikipedia is chaotic, bureaucratic, plateauing in growth and biting newcomers is all quite well known and has been said before. Morozov deserves credit for putting these things together in one essay. But, seeing the end of Wikipedia round the corner is more than just speculation.

I have spent a few thousand edits and a few hours on Wikipedia. I continue to, in fact. Recently, I was impressed by an article in a scientific journal calling for wikipedia contributions from scientists, more as a professional responsibility rather than some late evening altruism. But like most others (I presume), my work on Wikipedia has been immensely satisfying for me. A side-effect of this was that several article got written or improved. And that is the strength of Wikipedia. It never had the great grand vision that our chieftain evangelises around the globe. The stuff he talks about happens is a side-effect, which is not at all bad for me or for Wikipedia. It is only people who have charted some kind of a yardstick for Wikipedia that keep getting disappointed.

Anyways, the point I am trying to make is that Wikipedia is the best we have. The mundane editing that happens is an inescapable consequence of keeping the encyclopaedia open. The governance is transparent and open to criticism. It is much too early to pass a judgement on online content collaborations such as the one that Wikipedia is leading. The delicate balance between conserving professionalism and keeping alive collaboration by amateurs is being managed brilliantly by Wikipedia. Other spin-offs which tweaked the balance some slightly, and others more towards the professional, are slowly fading away. We could do a China, and legislate articles, or blow up internally like a banana republic….but, well, at wikipedia, we choose democracy. Democracy comes at a high price, and we pay that for Wikipedia. It is slower to get that damned card from the ‘sarkari’ office, but hey, at least, I do not have to get orders about my future from a colonel!

In as much as Morozov points out these things like the extreme bureaucratisation, ‘biting of newcomers’ and the flawed model in adminship and regulation of biographical articles, he is absolutely right. There are umpteen discussions ongoing in the back alleys of Wikipedia on all these. Change will come slowly, and that is a flaw. But there is no better way to it.

And, still that ultimate question is not answered which I have put up on my user page

“This user believes that anyone who thinks Wikipedia is an unreliable source should continue their quest to find a better website.”

Image sources: Wikimedia Commons/Shyamal

Delhibirding at Okhla

I was in Delhi over the weekend on work and I was able to catch up on some Sunday birding with Delhibird members. Just thought of sharing my experience with them, this being my first birding outing in Delhi. Due thanks to Gopi Sundar, Anshu, KB Singh and a diverse group of members from Delhibird well represented in age, gender and profession!

A particularly hot Sunday morning, the stench of the Yamuna and the recent disquiet from yesterday’s tragic blasts did not deter the Sunday outing of Delhibird to Okhla Bird Sanctuary, geographically in Uttar Pradesh, but only about half hour drive from the national capital.

A chance meeting with Gopi Sundar who studies Sarus Cranes and a co-incidental phone call from Anshu of Delhibirds regarding the outing made it possible for me to join the group to Okhla. We left Delhi at 5.40 AM and reached Okhla at 6 AM. The twitching of the Lesser Whitethroat and the ammoniacal odours of the Yamuna welcomed us (For those who think I am overstenching the Yamuna, see quote of the day below). We parked within Okhla and walked down the trail with agricultural fields on one side and dry marsh land with tall grass on the other with the ‘pie’ of male bushchats every few metres apart. A lone Common Babbler on the trail ahead excited me quite a bit, we southerners not having this ‘common’ cousin of our babblers.
We reached the end of the trail overlooks the Yamuna waters with tall grass, a few settlements and stray cattle separating us from the water. Somebody pointed out a large bird perched at a distance and the day started. Even as the scope was being set up, several binocs went up and a tentative diagnosis of a hepatic female cuckoo was announced. The barring on the upper tail, its
large size and the very fine nature of the barring on the underparts was bringing Eurasian Cuckoo in my mind. The scope brought some clarity – the yellowish bill and the plumage indicated that it was a juvenile. The throat had relatively lesser streaking and the underparts were also quite dark with the fine barring. With a lingering doubt in everyone’s mind, we settled for juv. Greybellied Cuckoo. A few record shots from the photgrapher friends will settle the id soon perhaps.

A courageous group of delhibirders turned waders and waded through some water, vegetation and whatnot to reach the water. They were rewarded with Blacktailed Godwits, Ruffs and several other waterbirds. Just then, we all had seen a female Marsh Harrier and even as I was about to mention Migrantwatch, KB Singh informed me that he would be logging it into MW
today! The other group which stayed put were witness to an Rufousbacked Shrikes, an oriole in flight, red munias and black drongos. On the other bank, meanwhile were over a hundred terns, mostly whiskered with some river terns fishing. As we returned, Gopi scoped a few Spotted Owlets roosting in a Banyan tree nearby. A Greater Spotted Eagle and a Pariah kite circling
together as we walked back was another highlight of the morning.

It was a great opportunity to meet some birders from Delhi. It’s amazing how many of them have heard so much about BR Hills. The recent photographs from BR Hills had made it even more of a top destination for many of them. Between the harriers and the munias, the conversation moved from Migrantwatch to the top-ten photographers announced by Kolkatabirds and slowly strayed away to idlis and dosas, and at some point, we all dispersed
to Sagar restaurant in Noida, where I gulped down the most expensive idlis of my life. As all breakfast convos go, this one too was unmatched in its width of topics – conservation policy, judiciary, ethics, choice of ‘spirits’ and what not!

A morning well spent with delhibird members and I look forward to birding again with them whenever I visit Delhi.

Quote of the day (Heard over breakfast 🙂

“I saw a Small Blue Kingfisher once. It dived into the Yamuna… then turned Pied”

List of birds seen

1) Grey Francolin – Francolinus pondicerianus
2) Lesser Whistling Duck – Dendrocygna javanica
3) Spotbilled Duck – Anas poecilorhyncha – Hundreds!
4) Northern Shoveler – A. clypeata – 2 females among the spotbilled ducks
5) Green Bee-eater – Merops orientalis
6) Juv. Cuckoo – Possibly Greybellied?
7) Greater Coucal – Centropus sinensis
8) Roseringed Parakeet – Psittacula kramerii
9) Spotted Owlet – Athene brama
10) Laughing Dove – Streptopelia senegalensis
11) Eurasian Collored Dove – Streptopelia decaocto
12) Yellowfooted Green Pigeon – Treron phoenicoptera 3 different flocks of
approx 12-15 pigeons
13) Whitebreasted Waterhen – Amaurornis phoenicurus – heard only
14) Purple Moorhen – Porphyrio porphyrio
15) Ruff – Philomachus pugnax – 4 in flight
16) River Tern – Sterna aurantia
17) Whiskered Tern – Chlidonias hybridus
18) Pariah Kite – Milvus migrans
19) Marsh Harrier – Circus a. aeruginosus
20) Greater Spotted Eagle – Aquila clanga
21) Little Cormorant – Phalacrocorax niger
22) Little Egret – Egretta garzetta
23) Cattle Egret – Bubulcus ibis
24) Grey Heron – Ardea cinerea
25) Purple Heron – Ardea purpurea
26) Night Heron – Nycticorax nycticorax
27) Painted Stork – Mycteria leucocephala
28) Rufousbacked Shrike – Lanius schach
29) Rufous Treepie – Dendrocitta vagabunda
30) House Crow – Corvus splendens
31) Eurasian Golden Oriole – Oriolus oriolus – seen in flight
32) Black Drongo – Dicrurus macrocercus
33) Whirring call of Common Iora?? Aegithina tiphia – Not confirmed
34) Redvented Bulbul – Pycnonotus cafer – outnumbered its whiskered cousin
35) Redwhiskered Bulbul – P. jocosus
36) Ashy Prinia – Prinia socialis
37) Lesser Whitethroat – Sylvia curruca
38) Tailorbird – Orthotomus sutorius
39) Common Babbler – Turdoides caudatus
40) Purple Sunbird – Nectarinia asiatica
41) Red Munia – Amandava amandava
42) Silverbill – Lonchura malabarica
43) Scalybreasted Munia – L. punctulata

Bird flu – Birds edition

It’s an interesting puzzle, this bird flu. On one side, while birdwatchers are all disturbed about even the suggestion of wild bird culling as a control measure to prevent spread of bird flu by migratory birds, on the other hand, for the public health professionals, it is just among various available ‘vector-control’ measure…..kinda like control mosquitoes to prevent malaria. Who would listen if for whatever reason, ‘mosquito-rights’ activists want to prevent any such measure!!

Anyways, neither are there any mosquito-rights activists, nor are things as simple as taking a leaf from malaria vector control and applying it in bird flu. Understandably, things are much more complex than that. In two posts to two different groups, I have shared my opinions with both interest groups – birdwatchers and public health professionals…….here is the birds edition, and soon to come the public health edition.

Just a few comments of mine especially in view of several discussions that I have been witness to in course of my study here. I just share below some of my thoughts for the general reader and may be writing on topics way out of the purview of our discussion group in hope that many birdwatchers would be interested in topics related to bird flu – an interesting situation that calls for a lot of inter-disciplinary work and understanding of concepts in biology, epidemiology, public health and veterinary science.

Sudheendra’s mail and Krishna’s and Deepa’s subsequent replies about Avian flu bring up many issues on avian flu that are hardly being considered. Sudheendra rightly points out the serious economic consequences of mass culling being undertaken in response to ‘declared’ cases of the flu in Orissa and Bengal. Many of the people involved here are small poultry owners for whom livelihood is a much more proximate concern than an unheard ‘flu’.

Flu is definitely not something to be taken lightly. As Krishna points out, if the virus does ‘cross-over’ to humans, the chances are only among the animal handlers, and that is exactly where the public health authorities must focus. It is also to be noted that until recently bird-human infection was not yet reported and it was only spreading among birds. But, the worldwide panic is because IF there is such a mutation that enables the flu to spread among people, it could take up the pandemic proportions that the world has seen before.

The thing about flu is that it is clinically….well…so insignificant! Fever, feeling of weakness, body pain, red eyes are symptoms that dont get reported. MOre so in the health system landscape that India has with a zillion private clinics, quacks, traditional healers and disgruntled and frustrated public health system. The reports we are getting now are the ones we could detect.

Flu viruses have the uncanny ability of sweeping across the world bringing about widespread deaths and then, suddenly disappearing. This has happened many times before. The classical example quoted is that of the Swine Flu epidemic in the US which is supposed to have killed over 20 million people over 4 months just in the US! Of course, the pandemic was worldwide, but you
can get numbers only for the US, UK and some other countries which did have such systems. Over 200,000 people are supposed to have died in this pandemic in UK. It took more lives than in the First world war. And then, suddenly Swine Flu vanished into thin air. Poof! I say this to emphasize the point that flu is a very real danger. The reason why it flares up so suddenly is
attributed to mutations.

Influenza is caused by a virus which are comparable to “a bad xerox machine inside a protein cover”, the xerox machine in this case referring to its genetic material. I call it bad because it lacks a particular ‘proof-reading’ mechanism that other living things have and hence there are
no ‘errors’ when for example our own skin cells multiply in a healing wound. If our cells did not have a good way of keeping our genetic material intact during division, then we would all be doomed! But, for the virus this is quite an advantage, and hence through mechanisms called drifts and shifts, the virus keeps changing its protein clothing, which is what enables our immune system to identify them. So, how does the human immune system grapple with a virus that keeps changing its appearance……It cant!…which is why, HIV and many other such viruses pose a great threat for vaccines. We would have to keep making vaccines for every new dominant appearance (strain) of the virus. IN simple language what I spoke about here is recognized as Genetic drifts and Genetic shifts. Drifts are minor changes occuring in the protein coat of the virus that leads to failure of vaccines and sometimes, major catastrophes, such as the Spanish Influenza Pandemic in the spring of 1918 which is supposed to have killed anywhwere between 40-100 million people! Get ready for this one – The Spanish Flu strain was supposed to have been an avian virus that underwent a shift!

Coming back to avian flu, the present strain finds it very difficult to get transmitted from human to human. Still, over 300 worldwide deaths that have been reported today are mostly bird-human transmissions with a few rare ‘within family’ transmissions reported mostly again, within the family of the animal/poultry handlers. The virus strain causing the flu is called H5N1
which is the standard name for naming influenza viruses. H stands for one of the surface proteins on the virus that enables entry into cells, and N stands for an enzyme that enables the new virus particles to break out of the dying cell. Now, 4 sub-types of the avian flu virus are recognized. All
of them are deadly to birds, and can cause disease and death among humans. It is important to remember here that the virus presently is an AVIAN FLU virus and is being incidentally passed on to humans because of the way in which we have organized our poultry system! Wild birds, especially waterfowl are natural carriers of the virus, although, they are not as susceptible to
the disease as are the domestic birds. For eg. Russian vets are supposed to have drawn over 4000 samples of blood in Siberia with around 50 showing antibodies, which indicates active infection or past infection.

It is quite evident that migrant birds can carry these strains. But, it is important to note the following:

1) Birds carry several kinds of flu viruses and they have been doing so for zillions of years.

2) Wild birds themselves pose NO THREAT to any person directly. The only way is for them to pass on their infection to poultry birds, where the flu could spread like wildfire.

What we need to focus on is the situation within our poultry industry, handling of dead birds and a surveillance system that reports bird deaths in poultry houses. Moreover, awareness on this for animal handlers is extremely important. I find it quite ridiculous that may international bodies are calling for culling of wild birds. Such measures are not only scientifically untenable, they are also quite a schoolboy solution, I must say….a bit like trying to kill all mosquitoes to eradicate malaria!

What we must concentrate on is surveillance systems, awareness on animal handling and vaccine research. Prototypes of the vaccines are being reported. If the virus does acquire mutations that enable human-human transmission, it could definitely be catastrophic, else, it could just go away into the thin air like a million other strains of flu that we in the third world could never ever find document, let alone naming them after their surface proteins. India must’ve seen so many other previous outbreaks that were never documented.

Just a final word, Avian Flu is a disease that presents a lot of research opportunities. There could be many PhDs created. It creates good business opportunities, many patents, awards, paper presentations, conferences and well, sales of the vaccine will rake in millions…….it’s not the same
situation for diseases like Malaria, Kala-azar, Tuberculosis etc. which continue to kill millions of people across millennia….these are the neglected diseases that no one ever bothers about. There are no new vaccines being tried, and no new drug being developed for these diseases….there is
simply no ‘market’!!! An irony that avian flu gets so much attention.

Wonder how many of you got this far into my long rant at the end of a busy week here in cold, birdless Antwerp….most of the birds around my house are around where most of you are sitting. Who knows, maybe some of them carried the flu!!! I started the mail saying “…just a few comments”……

Some references for those who are interested:

Johnson, NP; Mueller, J (2002 Spring). “Updating the accounts: global
mortality of the 1918-1920 “Spanish” influenza pandemic.

J. D. Earn, J. Dushoff, S. A. Levin (2002). “Ecology and Evolution of the
Flu”. *Trends in Ecology and Evolution* 17: 334-340.

Bill Bryson (2003) A Short History of Nearly Everything. pp. 386-388