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S. Africa ostrich industry hit by major bird flu outbreak

By Robyn Curnow and Teo Kermeliotis, CNN
updated 7:31 AM EST, Wed February 22, 2012
  • South Africa's ostrich industry is facing tough times after a major bird flu outbreak
  • More than 40,000 ostriches have been culled since last April
  • Officials warn that the impact of the disease outbreak on the industry is severe
  • South Africa accounts for up to 80% of the world's ostrich products

(CNN) -- For some 100 years, tourists have flocked Arenhold Hooper's ostrich family farm in Oudtshoorn, the South African city renowned as the ostrich capital of the world, to ride its long-legged, long-necked birds.

Today, however, Hooper's Highgate Ostrich show farm is devoid of both birds and people after tests showed that a major avian flu outbreak in the region has infected his birds. As a result, all of Hooper's 1,500 ostriches have been culled.

"We do not have a business at this stage, our business is closed," says Hooper, whose farm has been empty eight months now.

"Tremendously frustrated -- it has been a battle of unanswered questions, it has been sleepless nights, it has been staff concerns, it has been financial concerns. We still do not have the green light so the sleepless nights and the frustration still carries on," he adds.

Hooper is just one of the hundreds of Oudtshoorn farmers facing tough times after the H5N2 virus was first detected in the region in April -- the strain, officials say, does not pose a threat to humans but could mutate and affect poultry.

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The situation cannot continue indefinitely and we very urgently need to try and get the industry back on its feet again.
Wouter Kriel, Western Cape Department of Agriculture

Since then, African authorities have imposed an exports suspension of ostrich products and banned restocking until the entire region is declared virus-free. In total, 41,000 ostriches have been culled.

Officials say farmers whose animals were culled have received compensation of 50 million rand ($6.5 million) but warn that the impact on the industry, which accounts for up to 80% of the world's ostrich products, is still severe.

"The industry estimates that it is losing more than 100 million rand ($13 million) per month which is very serious," says Wouter Kriel, the spokesman for the Western Cape Provincial Department of Agriculture.

"The situation cannot continue indefinitely and we very urgently need to try and get the industry back on its feet again," adds Kriel.

Africa's feathered fashion export

South Africa is the global leader in ostrich farming. Its industry exports 90% of its output, generates about 1.2 billion rand ($155 million) a year and provides direct job opportunities for 20,000 people in Oudtshoorn.

Its main export product is meat, which is particularly popular in Europe for its low fat and cholesterol levels and accounts for more than 60% of the industry's turnover. Other items include leathers, eggs and feathers, used primarily to adorn fanciful costumes of carnival dancers, such as those cramming Rio de Janeiro's streets this week.

Read also: Rhino horn trade triggers extinction threat

Anton Kruger, head of the South African Ostrich Business Chamber, the business body representing the industry, says that Oudtshoorn's meat-exporting farms that were spared the virus are also suffering the strain, hit by the European Union import ban on all ostrich meat from the area.

"They still have the ostriches in the farm, they keep on feeding them, they have to keep on paying their workers," he says. That is one of the big issues with the other farmers."

Late last month, authorities announced that the seventh round of surveillance for the H5N2 virus were negative. If the next round of tests also yields negative results, then the government can deem the outbreak to be over -- it is only then that South Africa can apply to the European Union, their biggest importer of ostrich meat, to lift their ban and farmers can start restocking.

But Kruger says even if the ban is lifted "it will take at least three years for the industry to recover," affecting the livelihood of the area's farmers.

"These are very rural areas with high unemployment figures so should the industry collapse in those areas it would have a very big, socio-economic impact," he warns.

Read more: Ivory Coast seeks chocolate fairness for farmers

Back in Oudtshoorn, Hooper's staff have started a government-funded retraining program just in case the farm never re-opens again, while those in the industry await the latest test results.

Hooper, whose family has been running the farm for five generations, says he is determined that even if there are more delays in restocking, one day he will be able to get people riding his ostriches again.

"It is in our blood to do what we do and we will keep fighting for that," he says.

"I will not get out of this industry, I will keep fighting until we get birds back on this property and do what we have been doing for more than 100 years," adds Hooper.

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