CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Danie Kok kicked his boots in the red dust swirling through empty wire pens at the farm he manages near Oudtshoorn, the world's ostrich-farming capital. No ostriches were to be seen.
"We've been through some bad times, but nothing comes close to this," said Mr. Kok, 55, who has worked at the Van Wykskraal farm east of Cape Town for 30 years.
Last year, more than 1,600 of the farm's birds were taken away and killed after a strain of bird flu was detected in the flock. Such outbreaks, detected on 43 farms, led the government to ban all fresh ostrich-meat exports from South Africa, which had supplied 70 percent of world demand. The ban won't be lifted until farmers meet new hygiene and registration requirements and the country has been disease-free for three months.
About 740 ostrich farms, as well as 20,000 jobs in farms, slaughterhouses, tanneries and feather-processing plants, may be at risk in an industry that dates to 1864. Feathers from the flightless birds were outranked only by gold, diamonds and wool among South African exports before World War I.
More than 43,000 ostriches have been culled in South Africa since the H5N2 virus was detected in April last year. While farmers have received 50 million rand ($6 million) in government compensation, the industry had been earning $115 million a year from meat exports.
About 70 percent of meat, valued for its beef-like texture and its low cholesterol and fat content, was exported. Carrefour, the world's second-largest retailer, Aldi Group, Germany's biggest discount food chain, and Edeka Group's Netto stores, were among the largest buyers, according to Johan Stumpf, managing director of Klein Karoo International, the world's biggest ostrich-products processor.
"You have the same expenses but no income," said Jack Klass, 78, the owner of Van Wykskraal, who has been farming since 1958. "It's going to ruin the business."
The government now requires ostrich farmers to re-register their farms, chlorinate water and improve fencing and access controls.
"When they took our birds, they said we could restock in three weeks," said Arenhold Hooper, owner of the Highgate Ostrich Show Farm. He lost 1,500 ostriches, 49 of them trained to take part in daily races and give rides to tourists. "We've effectively been closed as a farm and a tourism operation for more than a year now. It's been a battle."
South Africa is a member of the World Organization of Animal Health, which requires all birds to be culled on farms where avian flu is detected.
The government has done everything required of it to have the ban lifted and farmers now have comply with the new rules, said Mpho Maja, health of animal health at the Department of Agriculture.
"Progress on the side of the industry is however disappointing," she said. "The re-registration of farms is stalling, the farming practice has not changed, or at least we have not seen the proposed changes and how they intend implementing them."
The outbreak of the disease, unrelated to the H5N1 type of bird-flu that has killed at least 357 people worldwide, is the latest animal health crisis to affect South African farmers.
Tens of thousands of pigs were slaughtered after the country's biggest-ever African swine fever outbreak last year, while horse exports were restricted for more than four years, after an outbreak of African horse sickness. South African wool producers lost access to their biggest market, China, in 2010 when Rift Valley fever swept through their flocks.
Ostrich farmers spared from the culling because the disease wasn't detected in their flocks are also struggling. Without export markets to sell to, the price for adult birds has plunged about 40 percent to 1,700 rand -- roughly what it costs to feed them for a year, until they are old enough to slaughter.
Prior to the ban, South Africa slaughtered 250,000 to 300,000 of the birds a year. Ostriches can reach a height of 8 feet and weigh 300 pounds. Smaller competitors to South Africa include China, Zimbabwe and Australia.
First Published July 1, 2012 12:00 AM