It is not an easy game but if an alternative to culling is found, South Africa's ostrich industry could take flight.
There are fewer than 250 000 farmed ostriches in South Africa, compared with a million at the beginning of the 1900s.
Yet demand and prices for ostrich leather and feathers have seldom been better and ostrich meat is also increasingly sought after internationally for its health qualities which it was not in the early 1900s.
The South African ostrich industry is a potential boom sector, but the agricultural authorities have been culling flocks at an unprecedented rate because of outbreaks of avian influenza. If the government-mandated culling of diseased birds continues at the rate of the past two years, the industry will be wiped out within a decade.
Fifty thousand ostriches have been culled in the past 18 months, a faster rate than ever before.
The cost to the government of culls – both in compensating farmers and in organising them – has been about R60-million in the past year alone.
Because of an outbreak in the Klein Karoo early last year, and five subsequent infections detected, South Africa has been banned from exporting any fresh ostrich meat to its traditional and most lucrative market, the European Union (EU), resulting in a loss of around a billion rand in exports.
About 40% of producers have already left the ostrich industry, causing an unknown number of job losses, mainly in already impoverished areas.
In a recent statement, Gerrit van Rensburg, the Western Cape minister of agriculture and rural development, said the focus is no longer on the resumption of meat exports, but rather on the survival of the South African ostrich industry.
What makes matters even worse is that, despite all the culling, it does not seem to work as a way to eliminate avian influenza.
This realisation at least contains the possibility of a solution: a task team has been set up under the national department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries to investigate and report back on alternative control measures. These alternatives include vaccinating birds, quarantining outbreaks and compartmentalising the country, as is done in Botswana where the country is divided into different zones for foot and mouth disease so that virus-free zones can continue to export while infected zones can manage and recover from any outbreaks.
The danger of outbreaks is not that the ostriches die – avian influenza is no more fatal to them than flu is to humans. The primary risk is that the virus could theoretically mutate and then affect the vast poultry industry. The virus afflicting South African farms is H5N2 and is not related to the highly contagious H5N1 virus that struck Asia in 2004.
Piet Kleyn, chief executive of the South African ostrich business chamber, said that culling is suited to and designed for combatting avian influenza outbreaks among housed birds such as chickens.
Ostriches are outside birds and in South Africa avian influenza is spread to them through contact with wild waterbirds. No matter how many ostriches are culled, those left alive will still have that contact.
"We will kill the entire ostrich population, but the avian influenza virus could still be active in the wild bird population," said Van Rensburg.
Kleyn said that blanket culling of any flock in which avian influenza is found – and South African ostriches are frequently tested – became the norm internationally and in South Africa following the Asian outbreaks in 2004.
Blanket culling was partly a panic reaction. At the time it was thought that avian influenza could easily mutate to become a vast threat to humans. That has not happened.
Nor has an outbreak of avian influenza among ostriches in South Africa ever infected any poultry operation or any human, said Kleyn.
Until 20 years ago, a locally made vaccine against avian influenza was used in the ostrich industry with excellent results. Kleyn believes the task team should look into a vaccine. Another possibility is quarantine because ostriches build up an immunity to bird flu. And another possibility is dividing South Africa into different zones.
About 75% of South Africa's ostrich production comes from the Western Cape and about 15% to 20% from the Eastern Cape. The Northern Cape is the third-largest producer.
Kleyn said although culling has become a universal practice, South African and international law do not absolutely require it and alternative methods for control must urgently be investigated. However, even if alternative methods such as vaccination became acceptable to the government for use within South Africa, the EU and other destinations would have to approve it if fresh ostrich meat is exported – a process of negotiation that could take years.
Johan Stumpf, managing director of Oudtshoorn-based Klein Karoo International, the world's largest supplier of ostrich meat, feathers and skin, said that South African ostrich meat has been banned from the EU for about four of the past 10 years owing to avian influenza outbreaks.
Klein Karoo International accounts for about two-thirds of ostrich slaughtering and processing in South Africa, with Mossel Bay-based Mosstrich accounting for most of the rest.
In the years of exclusion, producers whose flocks had not been culled were only able to sell on local markets. They were able to get about R500 for the meat of a bird, which would have got about R1 500 if the meat was exported.
But provided enough of the birds can be saved from culling, Klein Karoo has some good news. It has begun treating ostrich meat with heat – heating its core to 70°C, in which form it is perfectly acceptable for export to the EU.
Stumpf said in January this year his management team brainstormed the problems of the ostrich industry and decided to go into heat treatment.
A pilot plant began producing the meat in April and reception of the product in the EU has been so good that the plant is now producing on a 24-hour basis.
Klein Karoo International has ordered equipment for a larger plant from overseas, which will arrive in November.
The new plant, which would be able to heat treat all of the company's ostrich meat if necessary, will be in production by early next year. The investment is relatively modest – R30-million over five years, said Stumpf.
Other countries also heat treat export meat. Stumpf said that Thailand is the best example – it treats all the large volume of chicken it exports to the EU.
Stumpf said this will stabilise the industry and protect it from the yo-yo of years in which it may not export alternating with those in which it may, and the accompanying plunges and peaks in prices. More reliable prices will also allow companies to develop value-added and packaged products and to market more effectively, he said.
But many ostrich farmers are not so enthusiastic. That is because heat-treated ostrich meat sells at a discount and there are operational costs and yield losses in the treatment.
In the end, with this method the farmer receives about R1 000 for the meat of a bird, which many say is still uneconomic.
It is said that every part of an ostrich has commercial value, but besides meat the other major contributors to farmers' earnings are feathers and skin, both used in the fashion industry.
Stumpf said Klein Karoo has developed the markets for these in the past few years, to compensate for the losses suffered from being unable to export meat.
South Africa has a unique ability with ostriches. A few decades ago, the country was the sole producer of farmed ostriches in the world and this monopoly was jealously guarded by a law that made it illegal to export live birds. But, with the liberalisation of agriculture, the legal restriction was lifted and many other countries imported South African ostriches to start their own industries.
At its height, non-South African ostrich production accounted for about 40% of world production. But with time non-South African producers realised the often quoted saying that "ostrich production is not easy" and gave up. As a result, South Africa – despite the problems of infection – accounts for 80% of world production.
If there is sufficient political will and action to solve the industry's problems, this could become a boom sector again, as it was in the great feather boom of the 1860s.