Duckery at Sonbeel

DR. APURBA CHAKRABORTY writes about a thriving enterprise in Assam’s rural hinterland.

Sonbeel in Karimganj district is a well known wetland (beel), famous for its pristine beauty and abundance of fishes. The beel gets water from the Shingla River of Mizoram and in the monsoons, it becomes a vast wetland, while in the winter, it reduces in size and turns into smaller water bodies. The surroundings are mostly inhabited by the Namasudras and Kaiborta people, and their livelihood revolves around fishing and boro paddy cultivation. These people are also doing a wonderful job in duck rearing and it has been economically beneficial for them.

I had a mind to know the latest status of a breed of ducks known as Nageswari – whose numbers are drastically coming down, available only in the Sonbeel area. Therefore, along with a friend – Dr. Bijoy Saikia, I headed for Karimganj. Dr. Abdul Hafeez, head of the Karimganj Krishi Vigyan Kendra; Khanin Bhuyan, Fishery officer; and Joydev Das, president of the Fishery Cooperative of Sonbeel also joined us. We were told that we would have to wait till the evening to see the ducks, as they had been let loose in the beel during the day. Since there was enough time, we went to the nearby Kali temple. Soon, as news spread about our visit, duck rearers thronged the temple and we started gathering information on the ducks. The Nageswari ducks are black in colour, with a white patch in the neck and chest area, its beak and toes are black, and the inner feathers of the wings are bluish in some birds. Its eggs are slightly bluish to greenish in colour.

In the evening, we went to the beel to see the ducks for the duck owners keep the birds on a higher land in the beel. They construct temporary sheds made out of bamboo or plastic and keep the ducks in the beel during the dry season. Just before the rainy season, they sell out all the ducks. They do so mainly due to space constraints owing to flooding, and because of the high mortality due to duck plague – a devastating disease among ducks. To avoid losses before the mortality starts, they sell off an adult duck at Rs. 400.

The place where the ducks are kept is a high land with an abundance of hijal trees. During the monsoons, up to six feet of these hijal trees are underwater, yet they survive. The duck sheds are about four to five feet in height, 10-25 feet in breadth, and 30-50 feet in length. The ducks are of different breeds like Nageswari, Pati, Khaki Campbell, etc.

The ducks we saw were quite healthy and weighed about 2.5 to three kgs. The ducks seemed to be very obedient and would go to their sheds only on their master’s call. Every morning, the masters come to the sheds, collect the eggs, let the ducks out on to the beel, and clean the sheds. In the evening, the masters count the ducks and guide them into their respective sheds. This is how the farmers are rearing their ducks in Sonbeel. There is no feed supplement, no medicine, no vaccination and not even a watchman in the beel for the night.

During the monsoon season, the villagers do not keep any ducks but soon after the floodwaters recede, they start the business as before. Meanwhile, a group of farmers rear ducklings away from the beel area to sell them in time to the Sonbeel farmers, who are happy to purchase readymade adult birds at a cost of Rs. 500-550 since they get the eggs from these adult birds as soon as they start the business.

Although it’s a very successful model for duck rearing, some scientific input will help the farmers even more. So, we organised an awareness meeting with the help of the Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Karimganj, with financial support from the Directorate of Extension Education, Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat. The farmers were happy to be part of such a meeting and to receive duck vaccines for the first time in their area.

We can replicate this duck rearing system, with scientific intervention, in the Brahmaputra Valley too. There are numerous water bodies suitable for duck rearing in all the istricts of Assam. Taking advantage of the huge resources in the form of the duck population at Sonbeel, we can tap the eggs, ducklings and the meat by establishing a modern hatchery and a small duck slaughterhouse. The Assam Agricultural University in Khanapara, Guwahati, can take care of the much-needed duck plague vaccine. If this can be done, farmers all over the Barak Valley and the Brahmaputra Valley will benefit immensely.

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