SUANTAENG, Thailand -- Sangwan Klinhom, a former Thai country singer, abandoned the circuit of farmyard weddings and cheap bars for the roving life of a duck herder.
But now this barefoot nomad is again singing a plaintive tune. With deep-set brown eyes bloodshot from sun and stress, Sangwan laments that his liberty and meager livelihood could be a thing of the past too if the Thai government prevails in banishing ducks from the country's broad wetlands.
Sangwan Klinhom, country singer-turned-duck herder, is worried about plans to banish ducks from wetlands.
(Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)
The effort to ban grazing ducks comes as recent studies have shown that waterfowl are a crucial link in the spread of East Asia's avian influenza epidemic, which has killed 45 people in the region in the past year and threatens to become a human pandemic that could cause millions of deaths worldwide. According to U.N. agriculture and health experts, ducks in particular have become silent killers.
A study completed last fall at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis found that the bird flu virus is evolving and that sick ducks are an increasing danger for infecting other animals. Infected ducks do not show symptoms of the disease, unlike chickens. Duck herders, farmers and officials thus have little clue that they must take emergency measures, such as culling flocks, to prevent the birds from spreading the disease to chickens, other livestock and even people.
Separate research by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the Thai government found a correlation between roaming ducks and the epidemic in the country's lucrative chicken industry. The study, released in December, showed that the outbreak of bird flu last year in the Thai chicken population was concentrated in areas where ducks commonly graze.
While avian flu has swept poultry in nine Asian countries, the second study noted that the epidemic has been most intense in the wetlands of central Thailand and the Mekong and Red River deltas in Vietnam, all home to roaming ducks.
Vietnam announced recently that it had suspended the breeding of all ducks in an effort to control the outbreak, which has killed 12 people in the country since early January and spread to more than half its cities and provinces. Thai agriculture officials, meanwhile, said they were beginning to enforce the new requirement that ducks be raised only in sheds.
But duck herders such as Sangwan are resisting the constraints on their freedom and income, underscoring the difficulty officials face in containing the disease in ducks -- especially because they show no symptoms.
"When the government says roaming ducks carry bird flu, it just makes people panic," said Sangwan, 56, a blue and brown knit cap pulled down over his deeply furrowed brow despite the tropical midday sun. "It's not true that ducks get the flu. For 20 years, I've been raising ducks and I've never seen one get bird flu."
Growing agitated, he raised his voice over the noise of his flock scavenging for food in a flooded rice paddy. Hundreds of brown ducks waded into the murky waters, shaking their tail feathers and pecking amid the muck for snails. A flotilla set sail with a whoosh toward a line of low coconut palms on the distant bank.
Sangwan claimed a sliver of shade on the dike beneath a tree. He pulled a small plastic bag of tobacco from his shirt pocket, rolled a skinny cigarette in a palm leaf and began to recount how he had brought his flock to the paddy hours earlier, after exhausting the food in another nearby field.
"I marched them here like little soldiers. 'Keep walking,' I told them. 'Keep walking,' " he said, gesturing with his open palms to show how he nudged them along.
A smile resettled on his stubbly, sunbaked face. Crow's feet deepened at the corner of his eyes. He sucked on the cigarette, sunken cheeks sinking deeper into shadow.
Each morning, a long bamboo rod in hand, Sangwan leads about 1,000 ducks to a recently harvested rice paddy in pursuit of snails turned up in newly tilled muddy fields.
Each evening, he and his wife line them up and march them back again to a campsite, where the ducks spend the night in an area enclosed by plastic sheeting. Sangwan follows the harvest season from province to province, shuttling the flock to new campsites in his pickup truck, potentially spreading the lethal virus across central Thailand.
"I've gotten used to living in the open fields," he said. "I love spending time with the ducks."
While he lies inside his camping tent, Sangwan said he hears the birds rustling at about 3 a.m. as they start hunting for comfortable nooks to lay their eggs.
"That's a nice sound," he said. "That's the sound of making money." He sells the eggs to a middleman, and they are eventually sold for producing traditional Thai desserts.
As a younger man, Sangwan worked construction and tried planting rice and vegetables. Then, praised by fellow villagers for his resonant tenor, he became a local country singer, attracting crowds but little income.
"If you're a singer, you're very poor. Some die without a coffin," he explained. So he turned to duck herding, learning the trade from an uncle. He gradually made enough money for a modest house and the pickup. "The ducks gave me everything I want," he said.
Thai officials have already started restricting the movement of ducks from one village to another in a bid to contain the highly lethal bird flu virus before it develops into a form that is as easy for people to catch as an ordinary flu bug. Now, the government plans to pay herders to kill their roaming flocks and instead start raising ducks on contained farms, according to Nirundorn Aungtragoolsuk, director of disease control in the Thai department of livestock development.
When these regulations were first proposed in the fall, Sangwan said his wife, Kamphaeng, led hundreds of villagers to protest outside a local government office. They besieged the building for three hours, accusing officials of acting arbitrarily and sowing panic.
"If they don't allow me to keep raising roaming ducks, I'll be jobless," Sangwan fretted. "And it's not just me but thousands of families."
After the new rules were proposed, he experimented for a week with keeping the ducks in a shed beside his home. "I felt restless because the ducks couldn't walk around and they didn't have enough food and I didn't have enough money to bring them food," he recounted. "The ducks were not happy."
That was bad news, he continued, because he said ducks are like pregnant women: They need to be pampered or they get nervous and lay their eggs prematurely.
"I feel like I have 1,000 little wives," he added. "When the ducks get tense, I get tense."
Special correspondent Somporn Panyastianpong contributed to this report.