European ban bites into SA ostrich industry

A century ago, ostrich plumes were South Africa’s most valuable export after gold, diamonds and wool. The outbreak of World War I and the advent of the motor car—which made fancy-feathered hats impractical—snapped the trend in flight.

Today, ostrich feathers and other luxury goods such as ostrich leather and meat are making a global comeback, one that faces new threats: a European Union ban on ostrich food products imposed after bird flu hit South Africa, and a rising rand that makes exports more expensive.

In Oudtshoorn, the world’s self-proclaimed ostrich capital—where vendors hawk ostrich wallets and feather dusters, and visitors are invited to ride the flightless bird and walk over its mighty eggs—people are worried.

“I’m getting only half as much for each bird as before the ban, and it doesn’t even cover the cost of feed,” said Kobus Potgieter, owner of Rietfontein Ostrich Palace, which describes itself as the world’s oldest ostrich farm.

South Africa is the undisputed global leader in ostrich products, accounting for about 80% of the world market and boasting annual exports worth about R1,2-billion. About 70% of the value is in the leather, 20% in the meat and 10% in the plumes.

Ostrich feathers are back in vogue in the fashion and entertainment industry, with growing demand from theatres such as the famed Moulin Rouge cabaret in Paris, according to Anton Kruger, general manager of the South African Ostrich Business Chamber.

The Rio carnival in Brazil uses about 15 tonnes of Oudtshoorn feathers for costumes—the equivalent of more than 10 000 birds.

Plumes are also becoming more sought after to trim expensive shawls and other accessories, Kruger said.

But exporters now grumble that the strength of the rand against the dollar and euro is hurting business, especially for prized ostrich leather.

Ban takes toll

The EU ban—introduced in August after a less dangerous version of the bird flu that has ravaged Vietnam was found on a farm in the Eastern Cape province—is taking a big toll on the once-thriving meat trade.
The EU traditionally accounts for 90% of exports.

Oudtshoorn’s deep freezers are now full of uneaten meat—it’s too pricey for locals, who in any case prefer mutton or chicken.

South African officials have culled thousands of birds and say the outbreak is now under control. Last month, however, the EU executive commission extended the import ban until the end of June, as a precaution.

“I still enjoy farming, but it’s getting more difficult,” sighed Potgieter, who is uncertain whether his two young sons will want to follow in his footsteps.

South Africa’s ostrich industry took off in the 19th century.

The plumes were prized as fashion accessories by European high society, and soon farms sprung up around Oudtshoorn and the nearby Karoo desert, bringing unprecedented wealth to the arid, mountainous region.

New uses for skins, feathers

But Kruger insists new outlets for the precious skins are constantly emerging, including luxury American cars, which have started using the leather in door panels and seats.

Ostrich-feather dusters are ubiquitous and cheap, selling for about R10 on the dusty roadsides around Oudtshoorn. About one million are exported every year. South Africans are also trying to foster demand for premium housekeeping products, such as miniature dusters that retract into an ostrich leather case—said to be ideal for computer keyboards.

Ostrich leather is the second-toughest after kangaroo skin. It is a high-quality, hard-wearing product with a price tag to match.

Small handbags on sale in Oudtshoorn stores start at R5 000, far out of the reach of most South Africans.

The country has traditionally exported handbags and shoes to Japan and Europe, and cowboy boots to the United States.

South Africa slaughters about 300 000 ostriches each year, and about 20 000 people work in the industry. Caring for the eggs and chicks is a labour-intensive business: it takes three men to weigh an adult bird, explains Potgieter.

Potgieter considers himself lucky. He diversified into the restaurant and bed-and-breakfast business just before the EU ban hit. His farm even served as the setting for an upcoming film on German television—a romance about a cash-strapped ostrich farmer.

Potgieter currently has about 100 adult birds, which lay up to 2 000 eggs a year. A few of the eggs make it on to the table of the Ostrich Palace’s newly opened restaurant, as do delicacies such as ostrich liver pate and smoked ostrich. With each egg the equivalent of 24 hen’s eggs—they take two hours to boil—the Potgieters will only crack one open if they have a big party of visitors.

South African farmers are hoping they will soon be able to export their big stockpiles of meat to Europe. In the meantime, the industry is trying to persuade South Africans to buy ostrich meat as a tasty, low-cholesterol and virtually fat-free alternative to beef.—Sapa-AP