The last time we drove down the Vadodara-Ahmedabad expressway, something caught my eye. It was a signboard for an "Emu Farm" with an arrow pointing in its direction. I looked up the internet to find this site www.emugujarat.com. Anand, it seems, is now known for more than just tobacco and Amul. We called up Dr Mahesh Patel of the Emu Gujarat Research and Development Centre who asked us to visit the farm. "No entry charges and open even on Sundays till 6 pm!" We drove down to the district yesterday, past tiny villages, lush tobacco fields and dried canals on our way to the Setu Emu Farm near Chikhodara Road. The last 3 km stretch of the road is an unmarked dirt-track. Luckily, all the locals knew about the giant birds that lived nearby. The emu may be of Australian descent but it has now found its way into Gujarat's rural lexicon.
|That's the egg... the dark green shells are collectors' items|
|Nathubhai the caretaker|
|One that slipped away...|
|"Let me out, please!"|
The farm was small - about four to five bighas (1 bigha = 2,500 sq metres). Nathubhai, the caretaker, was busy loading birds (all of 16) onto a large tarpaulin-covered truck. "They're taking them to another farm at Savli near Baroda," he told us.
There are 125 birds in the farm. Since male and female emus are hard to distinguish at a glance, the caretakers have marked the legs of the female emus with green chalk. The hatcheries are in Anand district. When the chicks turn three or 3.5 months, they are shifted to the farm where they are fed poultry feed. At four years, an emu is six feet and weigh about 65-70 kg. And each dark green egg can weigh anywhere between 950 grams and 1 kg. If you were to make an omelette out of that, it would easily serve 10 people! Birds are fed poultry feed and each bird requires on an average 750 grams of feed a day.
The ratites are farmed for their meat, eggs, feathers and oil. A healthy, adult emu costs upwards of Rs 45,000, a three-month-old chick, Rs 6,300 and an egg, Rs 2,000 (they will serve you an omelette for Rs 3,000!) Nathubhai said that in the breeding season (from November till March), female emus lay an egg every third day. And just a kilo of emu meat can be sold for anything upwards of Rs 550. "But we don't kill any birds," Nathubhai quickly pointed out, "but we can't say the same about our customers." But when an emu dies naturally (something, Nathubhai claimed is a rare occurence on this farm because the birds were hardy and resistant to infections), they extract its fat and sell precious 'emu oil' that is used in the treatment of burns, wounds, bruises and as a pain reliever for bone, muscle, and joint disorders.
Like fisheries and poultry farming, emu farming has caught up in Anand and seems to be doing quite well (and this is a largely vegetarian belt). Villagers claim there are around four to five farms in and around the district. Small farms supply to bigger farms in India and abroad. I worry about the trend. Emus are strong birds and need a lot of space to run around. The farms are small and the birds can scale the fences easily. Caretakers such as Nathubhai are not equipped to handle such birds. Emus are strong, with toenails that can cut like knives. Nathubhai is the only one of the dozen-odd caretakers on the farm who can handle an errant bird. And though the foreign birds are captive I worry about how more farms like these can impact the ecology of the region. The farms are not too far away from the fisheries and reservoirs which see hundreds of waterfowl during winter, including the endangered Sarus cranes. I can't tell for sure if there will be an impact. I worry now. Because when it gets too late to repair the damage, I'll not worry, I'll repent.
Pics: Rachit Mankad