NEW DELHI : Hundreds of birds were found dead at Sambhar Lake in Rajasthan, India’s biggest saltwater lake, which has been a favoured destination for migratory birds from Northern Asia and Siberia. According to officials, birds of 25 different species, including Lesser Whistling Duck, Common Coot, Pied Avocet and Caspian Gull, were found dead.

“A team of veterinary doctors visited the site and carcass samples were sent to laboratories in Jaipur and Bhopal to ascertain the cause of death," said Kavita Singh, district forest officer, Jaipur. “At this point in time, it’s difficult to say what led to the deaths."

Officials said such high-scale mortality was unusual. “The birds are scattered in the wild, so it is difficult to say how many deaths have taken place, but the number is certainly high. We did not notice any prior-to-death symptoms. It could be due to some toxicity in the lake, or some disease," said Dr Ashok Sharma, joint director, state disease diagnostic centre, Rajasthan.

Most dead birds were found around Ratan Talab, said officials, adding that the possibility of an avian flu breakout cannot be ruled out. Some of the injured birds were found unable to walk and had weak legs, as reported by some birdwatchers, who said the death toll could be above one thousand.

A similar incident was reported a few days ago in Jodhpur, where over 30 migratory birds, mostly demoiselle cranes, were found dead near Khichan, a common winter site for migratory birds.

“Their deaths were linked to a viral disease, which could be the case here, too. But it is difficult to confirm till we get the final diagnostic report," said a senior official of the animal husbandry department of Rajasthan. “We routinely undertake surveillance for migratory birds every winter," he added.

Dr Sumit Dookia, wildlife biologist at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi, says it is a Ramsar site and mortality of this scale is matter of serious concern. The area is quite huge and its difficult to map on foot, so the number of casualty could be higher. But its important, that entire region is surveyed with adequate care and no one should touch the infected carcasses without protective gear, till the final report," he said.

The saltwater lake in Sambhar, which is spread across 190-230 sq. km, has been recognized as a wetland of international importance, and is home to thousands of migratory birds, including Flamingoes.

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