Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in May 2008, causing nearly 85,000 human fatalities. It also destroyed large areas of the Ayeyarwady Delta region and wiped out an estimated 48 million animals, becoming the worst natural disaster in the country’s recorded history.
As one of the few international non-governmental organisations allowed to enter Myanmar in the weeks that followed, WSPA’s team of vets was always destined to make a huge difference to the worst hit communities.
But the conditions they found on arrival – little remaining infrastructure, scarce drinking water, ruins where veterinary facilities had stood – make the achievements of the Disaster Response and Assessment Team (DART) deployed from WSPA’s Asia office all the more remarkable.
An overwhelming animal welfare need
WSPA’s initial assessment showed that dogs and other companion animals had weathered the storm relatively well, having been protected by their owners as they tried to shelter from the cyclone’s fury.
The same could not be said for working animals; over 50% in the Delta area had perished. The surviving cattle and buffalo – largely traumatised, stressed or wounded – were found to be vulnerable to life threatening diseases.
The clear animal welfare need, combined with the local reliance on cattle and buffalo to plough the fields and provide the rice harvest, focussed WSPA’s efforts on working animals.
WSPA's Dr Tim Myers describes the devastation“During one of our mobile vet clinic runs along the waterways around Bogale, we docked at a small village called Khun The Chaung. It had obviously been underwater like all the others.
We ascertained from farmers that only 37 of the village’s 240 buffalo had survived the storm. We offered to examine the buffalo, treat the sick ones, and vaccinate the healthy animals.
After examining and vaccinating one buffalo, and an awkward pause, I realised that this was the only buffalo left in the village: of the 37 that had survived the storm, only one had lived through the haemorrhagic septicaemia outbreak that followed.
This was probably the most important animal we would vaccinate. Not only for the buffalo’s sake, but also as a symbol of hope for the people in that village."
What was achieved, with your help
The generosity of WSPA supporters in response to our emergency Myanmar appeal meant the team were able to launch a large-scale, comprehensive animal welfare operation, working with Myanmar’s Livestock Breeding and Veterinary Department (LBVD).
In the first weeks of the recovery operation, the WSPA DART:
Set up and managed four Emergency Animal Health Centres with LBVD, assisted by Humane Society International; the team themselves treated over 530 animals – from cattle to cats – for wounds, pneumonia and other ailments
Vaccinated and controlled parasites on over 3,700 cattle and buffalo at the centres, protecting them from life-threatening blood infections and foot-and-mouth disease; further vaccinations were carried out in the field
Provided 120 tonnes of animal feed, distributed across the stricken area
Donated veterinary medicines to LBVD staff brought in from other parts of the country, and funded their travel
Held mobile clinics for animals in remote villages, taking expertise and equipment to the animals and communities that needed it most.
Tim explains how WSPA's work was received
“When we arrived at a village to treat the animals it would be usual to see just five or six buffalo in the street. However, by the time we had the courteous cup of tea with the village elders, the road would be lined with buffalo, cattle, and excited farmers.
There would also be pigs presented by wide-eyed children, goats just as curious as their owners, and the occasional injured dog.
The farmers knew their own buffalo like the back of their hand. They knew when the animal was unwell, and provided very accurate clinical signs and histories for us during the examination, while giving it a comforting rub along the neck.
I’m not sure they exactly understood our explanation of different diagnoses, given through our translators, but they knew that we had treated the animals with medications, de-wormers and multivitamins, and that their buffalo would soon be getting better.
The farmers knew that the backbone of their community were now protected against fatal or crippling diseases.”
Ongoing support for a safer future
The WSPA team completed their emergency relief intervention in July, but will return later this month to the Ayeyarwady Delta if a United Nations funding proposal is successful.
A follow-up visit would enable us to rebuild the local veterinary infrastructure; provide hands-on training in for local vets in best practice, nutrition, treating parasites, and internal medicine; and provide further first aid and much-needed disease prevention work.
A risk reduction programme is also planned for 2009/10. This will help several Delta villages prepare for extreme weather by demonstrating how to store feed securely and build adequate shelters for working animals. This knowledge can then be shared between communities and replicated across the area, offering safeguards for animals and food security should extreme weather hit again.