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.