The National Council of SPCAs, South Africa’s biggest animal welfare organisation, has been involved with the campaign to end the epidemic of avian influenza among ostriches in the Eastern Cape from the beginning. Culling started on August 11, and around 17,000 birds had been slaughtered by mid-September.

The NSPCA has been represented at daily meetings with the joint operations centre (JOC) in Somerset West, and has been party to devising the method of ‘humane slaughter’ of the ostriches, as well as monitoring the process. NSPCA personnel are expected to be in place until the campaign ends.

‘Acknowledgement is given to the South African government and other authorities on this issue’, said NSPCA executive director Marcelle Meredith. ‘When animals were put down in the UK during the foot and mouth disease outbreak and in the Far East during the occurrence of avian flu, welfare presence was not permitted to monitor how the animals were killed. We give a well-deserved accolade to our government for not only permitting our presence but appreciating it.’

The NSPCA said farmers had wanted to put suffering birds out of their misery but did not have the manpower, equipment or other resources, including mass graves, to put them down. Infected ostrich need to be buried in lime to prevent further spread of the disease. Moving the ostrich to abattoirs for slaughter would spread the disease.

‘The epidemic of avian influenza among ostriches in the Eastern Cape appears to be grinding its way to closure, nearly two months and 20,000 culled ostriches after it started. While authorities were not prepared to speculate on a closure, the ostrich industry could be fully open for business again by the end of January 2005, if no further outbreaks occur.

It has been the biggest ever outbreak of avian influenza among domestic ostriches in the world, and the only confirmed outbreak among ostriches in SA. It is also the biggest outbreak of avian influenza, in any bird species, in South African history.

Exports of ostrich leather, fumigated feathers and disinfected eggshells, from the entire country, have not been affected. No ostriches or unprocessed ostrich products from the Eastern Cape have been exported or even transported since the outbreak began, except for salted skins pre-dating the epidemic, which had been further disinfected.

The cost has been considerable – aside from the loss of the birds to farmers, meat processors and tanners [farmers have been or will be compensated by the Department of Agriculture, and the estimated total cost will be around R30 million (US$4.6 million)], rebuilding the flocks will take 18 months or more.

‘We estimate the total cost in lost exports will be R30 million’, said Anton Kruger, manager of the SA Ostrich Business Chamber (SAOBC). ‘It could have been a lot worse. SA slaughters 300,000 ostriches a year, and it has affected only a handful of the 600 ostrich farms in SA, so this is a relatively small loss.’

Initially detected on two farms near Somerset East, it was soon found on three neighbouring farms. At the end of August, infected birds were found on three farms in the Grahamstown area. ‘It’s not correct to talk of the area widening’, said Dr Johan van Wyk, senior manager: animal health for the Department of Agriculture, who heads the joint operations centre (JOC) set up in Somerset East at the beginning of the epidemic.

‘There has been fairly free movement of ostriches around the country – a farmer may have ostriches from 20 different sources – and since the initial cull, we have been involved in backward and forward tracing. Backward tracing led us to Grahamstown.’

The source of the outbreak remains unknown. ‘We’re investigating some interesting theories’, says van Wyk. ‘We have just about ruled out imported birds or bird products. When there have been outbreaks elsewhere, this is one of the first countries to close its borders.

Said the SAOBC’s Kruger: ‘The SAOBC appreciates the government’s swift reaction, and the co-operation of all involved, and we have made resources available to expedite the process, because the sooner the export ban can be lifted, the better. Despite this, the SA ostrich industry still maintains its international leadership position, and we have actually shown, through our reaction to this epidemic, that we are the leaders in every respect.’

One of the first two farms where the epidemic occurred was a Port Elizabeth joint-venture business partly owned by Daun & Cie AG subsidiary Camexo SA Ltd, whose divisions include Camdeboo Meat Processors and Exotan.

Managing director Hennie Roets said the farm had provided about a third of Camdeboo’s and Exotan’s requirements in meat and skins, but that the other 25 shareholder suppliers had not had their flocks culled – though they cannot, until the epidemic is officially over, supply Camexo.

‘When this is over we’ll have to buy breeders’, he said, ‘but as it is now the breeding season, that will be difficult. Essentially, we’ll have to buy chicks and start all over, so the farm won’t be fully functional until early 2006.’

The Grahamstown Ostrich Export Abattoir is operating at greatly reduced levels, and has begun slaughtering sheep as an alternative, the separately owned Grahamstown Ostrich De-boning Plant is closed and the town’s two ostrich tanneries, Ostrimark SA and Philippe’s Exotic Leathers, are limping along, eking out their pre-epidemic stocks of wet-blue and crust.

Abattoir general manager Gerrie Botha said it was still possible to sell meat on the local market and to transport birds from Eastern Cape farms to the abattoir, with a permit from the Joint Operations Committee. ‘Yes, it’s at very reduced levels, but we’re still operating’, he said.

Sarel Broodryk, owner of the de-boning plant, declined to comment beyond confirming that the plant was closed. ‘The agreement reached with the SA Ostrich Business Chamber at the beginning of the epidemic was that no-one would make separate statements, and that everything would be channelled through one source. That hasn’t been happening, and the reports appearing in the local press have often been completely wrong.’

At Ostrimark, general manager Johan Schoeman said ruefully: ‘For the first time since I’ve been here, there are more orders than skins. This is an awful situation.’ Ostrimark’s principal supplier is farmer Ash Davenport, whose 3,500 birds – breeders included – were being slaughtered at the time of writing. Davenport and Ostrimark are linked by shareholding, and the same group is the single largest shareholder in the abattoir. They paid ‘between R5,000 ($773) and R6,000 ($928) per bird, five or six years ago’, when they built up their breeding stock, ‘because we wanted the best genetic stock’, Schoeman said.

The Department of Agriculture will compensate all farmers for birds that are culled. There is a sliding scale of payments, for breeding stock, birds under 40kg, eggs, and so on, and Schoeman said he’d been ‘very relieved’ to hear that Camexo had been paid out within weeks.

Farmers are relatively fortunate; no-one else in the ostrich pipeline will get any compensation from the government, or anyone else. Nonetheless, for those who lose their breeding stock, returning to full production will take more than a year.

Ostrimark are processing 600 skins/month – half their normal throughput – and ‘stocks won’t last very much longer’, Schoeman said. Buying in skins from other parts of the country is apparently not an option. ‘Prices have skyrocketed’, he said. ‘I’ve even been asked more for raw skins than I charge for finished leather.’

Like all SA’s small and medium ostrich tanneries, Ostrimark have had to diversify in the last few years, but they stuck to their guns longer than most, and gameskins make up a relatively small percentage of their business. These have been the tannery’s darkest days, but Schoeman said they had several plans which had been mooted before the cull, and they would continue investigating those.

At Philippe’s Exotic Leathers, member Flip Vermaak said his regular suppliers – six farmers with around 4,000 birds – had lost all of their birds, breeders included.

‘Fortunately, we’ve been able to source elsewhere, and so far production hasn’t been affected’, he said. ‘Hopefully, we will continue to be able to do so.’

‘The exchange rate, and now the flu, have really hit this industry, and a lot of farmers will get out of it for the time being. That should be good for anyone who’s left.’

Philippe’s have diversified into gameskins for upholstery, and sheepskin nappa for clothing, but the nappa side has been ‘difficult’, Vermaak said. ‘Imports come in dirt cheap from Pakistan. There’s no room for manoeuvre.’