What should we do to this Japanese immigrant?

K. JAVEED NAYEEM writes: There is an ongoing tussle between the forest department of Karnataka and wildlife enthusiasts on one side and the breeders, sellers and users on the other side over which side of the conservation fence the Japanese Quail stands.

While the former group says that this bird is protected under the Wildlife Act, the latter argue that it is not at all a native species, having been imported into the country and being bred purely as a table bird.

It is now becoming quite popular as a tasty treat in most restaurants across the country, thanks to the promotion of its breeding on a commercial scale in the States of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It all started a few years ago when quail breeding was promoted in Kerala with the krishi vigyan kendra, Kannur, under the Kerala agricultural University, encouraging it as a part of its creative extension scheme.

The Japanese quail, Coturnix japonica, also known as coturnix quail or Pharaoh’s Quail, is a species of old world quail found in East Asia.

They are a migratory species, breeding in Manchuria, Southeastern Siberia, Northern Japan, and the Korean Peninsula, and wintering in the south of Japan and southern China. They dwell in grasslands and cultivated fields and the species is very abundant across most of its range.

Currently, it is being bred as a table bird in many European and South East Asian countries and also in the US.

The species, which is being reared for its meat and eggs, is seen as a good “dual-purpose bird”. Very interestingly, Japanese quail eggs have orbited the earth in several Soviet and Russian spacecraft, including the Bion 5 satellite and the Salyut 6 and Mir space stations to test the viability of birds’ eggs in space conditions.

In March 1990, quail eggs on Mir were successfully incubated and hatched.

The present controversy in our country stems from the fact that many agencies both government and private, are of the mistaken impression that this bird is the same as the Indian Partridge, which is commonly called ‘Teetar‘ and which is protected under schedule IV of the Indian Wildlife Act (1972).

A few self-educated experts have also quoted Salim Ali, the famous ornithologist while claiming that the Japanese Quail is a wild Indian bird.

But this is not true as the wild Indian Partridge, which this bird resembles quite closely, is the Grey Francolin (formerly also called the Grey Partridge), Francolinus pondicerianus, a larger-sized species found in the plains and drier parts of South Asia.

They are found in open cultivated lands as well as scrub forest and their local name of teetar is based on their calls, a loud and repeated Ka-tee-tar…tee-tar, which is produced by one or more birds. The term Teetar can also refer to many other partridges and quails of varying sizes found in the wild. But each one of them is of a sub- species distinctly different from the Japanese Quail.

Incidentally they all run very swiftly and gracefully and they actually seem to glide rather than run, and folklore says that the native Indian lover can pay no higher compliment to his mistress than to liken her gait to that of the Partridge! This is an observation about which too there is a small controversy because it is attributed to both A. O. Hume and John Lockwood Kipling, father of Rudyard Kipling.

In poetry, too, the partridge is associated with the moon, and, like the lotus, it is supposed to be perpetually longing for it, while one member of the group, the Chakore is even said to eat fire.

Now my interest in this whole dispute about whether it is legal or not to eat this farm-raised bird is not because I relish it but because in our confusion, we may be endangering many of our forest dwelling species.

I know of many instances where many trucks transporting these birds from farms in Kerala and Tamil Nadu to marketing outlets in Karnataka have been intercepted by our officials and the birds simply released into the forests, citing the Wildlife Act.

Now, while this may look like a very merciful and wildlife friendly act to many, it is in fact a very thoughtless and dangerous thing to do. The farm bred birds are capable of harbouring and transmitting some very deadly viral diseases to our wild species which can quickly wipe them out for good.

In a similar scenario in the sixties, the Rinderpest or Cattle Plague infection that was picked up from domestic cattle grazing in and around Bandipur almost wiped out the entire Bison population there which did not have any native immunity against it.

It took a full three decades for the Bison to make a comeback there.

Such an ecological disaster should not be allowed to occur while we stand and argue to decide on which side of the Indian Wildlife Act the Japanese immigrant should stand.

(K. Javed Nayeem is a practising physician who writes a weekly column in Star of Mysore, where a longer version of this piece originally appeared)