In Pakistan’s Punjab, big bird farms yield small dividends

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An ostrich seen through a glass wall at a shop on Lahore’s Ferozpur Road on February 2, 2019.
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An ostrich seen through a glass wall at a shop on Lahore’s Ferozpur Road on February 2, 2019.
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Mashooq Ali seen outside his ostrich meat shop on Lahore’s Ferozpur Road on February 2, 2019.
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An ostrich egg, weighing between 1200-1800 grams, seen at the Ostrich Research and Development Centre in Rawalpindi on February 10, 2019.
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Farmers decorate ostrich eggs before selling them at local markets. (February 10, 2019. Rawalpindi)
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The Ostrich Research and Development Centre in Rawalpindi is helping farmers extract and market ostrich oil. (February 10, 2019)
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Dr. Nasir Mukhtar, assistant professor at the Ostrich Research and Development Centre in Rawalpindi, holds an ostrich egg at his office on February 10, 2019.
Updated 01 April 2019

In Pakistan’s Punjab, big bird farms yield small dividends

  • Two years after the government announced a Rs14.5 subsidy for ostrich farmers, the business has failed to take off
  • Over-saturation of the market and government unwillingness to renew subsides has grounded the ostrich industry

LAHORE: It can outrun a horse and kick like a piston rod but at Mashooq Ali’s shop on Lahore’s sprawling Ferozpur Road, the lone ostrich can barely move or even spread its wings.
Ali bought the bird for Rs52,000 ($370) from a farm in Okara ten days ago . Since then, though patrons have thronged to his store for a glimpse of the African giant -- many marvelling at his magnificent size or tossing him things to eat -- there are few buyers.
Ostriches, the largest species of bird, were hunted for their meat, feathers and tough skin in the wild and now survive around the world mostly on special farms.
On average, a single ostrich can provide up to 33 kilograms of meat. The Punjab government’s fixed price per kilogramme is Rs1,300 ($9.5). A placard outside Ali’s shop announces that only large orders will be entertained.
“I cannot afford to make a loss by slaughtering it too early,” Ali told Arab News, pointing to the ostrich cowering in the corner of the shop and visible through a glass wall. “What if the rest [of the meat] doesn’t sell?”
Ali is one of hundreds of ostrich meat vendors in Pakistan’s richest and most populous province of Punjab, drawn to the business in 2017 when the provincial government granted a Rs14.5 million subsidy to farmers to breed and farm the birds. At the time, the government also promised to pay Rs10,000 per ostrich to those willing to rear between 25 to 100 chicks.
Initially, about a dozen farms cropped up in Punjab and ballooned to 275 in number. But two years later, despite government support and the best of intentions, the business has not taken off.
For many Pakistanis, ostrich meat is still as strange and exotic as it is expensive, so returns have been disappointingly low as supply has far outstripped demand. Also, hoping for high profit margins, farmers quickly jumped into the business without much knowledge of breeding practices., causing over-saturation of the market. This combined with the government’s unwillingness to renew subsides grounded the industry even before it could take off.  
This is bad news for a government that had envisioned replacing beef with ostrich meat, which many say tastes like beef but is low in fat and cholesterol, and planned to rear enough birds to export eggs, skin and feathers.
“Pakistan has been trying to establish this business for the last 20 years,” Dr. Nasir Mukhtar, assistant professor at the Ostrich Research and Development Centre in Rawalpindi, said. “But unfortunately each attempt has failed.”
The Centre was set up to facilitate farming and train farmers in rearing and breeding the birds.
According to the Centre, Pakistan first imported 53 ostriches in 2013. The number shot up to 3,000 last year. But a lack of funds has meant the Centre has had to freeze many of its research initiatives.
“We were moving to our second phase of development, which included seeing what different products can be made from ostrich skin,” Dr. Muhammad Talha Sajjad, a project director at the Centre, said. “But the new government has not authorised new subsidies or grants for the industry. This has put farmers under a lot of stress.”
Dr Asif Rafiq, communications director at the Punjab ministry of livestock, confirmed the government had withdrawn the subsidy but that the ministry was in talks with the farmers’ association about a new grant. Before the funds could be released, he said, the gap between demand and supply needed to be closed.
Colonel (r) Maqsood Qureshi, who invested Rs1.8 million to start an ostrich farm but failed to make a profit, said the large number of farmers who initially flocked to the business had over-saturated the market.
“Many of these farmers had no know-how on how to rear the birds,” Qureshi said.
Rafiq at the ministry of livestock agreed that a majority of the farmers had not bothered to study the birds, breeding practices or the market before investing. But the industry could still, perhaps, take off, he said.
One measure to bolster the industry was setting up an ostrich farm on the periphery of Lahore’s old city where meat would be sold even on the meatless days of Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
“We are working on launching a marketing campaign to promote the bird,” Rafiq said. “This time we need maximum results.”


‘Baby don’t go’: American singer Cher in Pakistan to bid farewell to Kaavan the elephant 

Updated 27 November 2020

‘Baby don’t go’: American singer Cher in Pakistan to bid farewell to Kaavan the elephant 

  • The 'world's loneliest elephant' has languished in the Islamabad zoo for 35 years and lost his partner in 2012
  • Cher and animal rights groups have campaigned for years for the elephant’s better treatment and freedom 

ISLAMABAD: American singing sensation Cher called on Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday during a visit to Pakistan to celebrate the departure of Kaavan, dubbed the “world’s loneliest elephant,” who is all set to leave an Islamabad zoo for a sanctuary in Cambodia.

Cher and other rights groups have for years lobbied for the better treatment and release of Kaavan, who has languished in the Islamabad zoo for 35 years. He was diagnosed by veterinarians as both overweight and malnourished earlier this year, and also suffers behavioral issues. He will leave for Cambodia on Sunday.

“Appreciating her efforts in retiring Kavan to an elephant sanctuary, the Prime Minister thanked Cher for her campaign and role in this regard,” a government handout said. “The Prime Minister observed that it was indeed a happy moment for all of us that after giving joy and happiness to the people of Islamabad and Pakistan for about 35 years, Kavan will now be able to retire with other elephants in a specialized sanctuary in Cambodia.”

Khan also invited the singer to contribute towards the government's initiative to expand its tourism and environmental programs, “to which she kindly agreed.”

“On this occasion, Cher applauded the Prime Minister for his government's key initiatives for ensuring a cleaner and greener Pakistan,” the statement added. “She also offered her support for furthering the green initiatives through her organization 'Free the Wild' and thanked the Prime Minister.”

Cher took up Kaavan’s cause and has been a loud voice advocating for his resettlement. Four Paws International, a Vienna-based animal welfare group, has also led the charge to save Kaavan and provided the medical treatment needed before he can travel. The battle for his relocation began in 2016.

Even after he’s in Cambodia, Kaavan will require years of physical and even psychological assistance, Four Paws' representatives have said.

Because of the abysmal living conditions blamed on systemic negligence, Pakistan’s high court in May ordered the closure of Marghazar Zoo in the capital of Islamabad, where Kaavan has lived for much of his life. A medical examination in September showed Kaavan’s nails were cracked and overgrown — the result of years of living in an improper enclosure with flooring that damaged his feet.

The elephant has also developed stereotypical behavior, shaking his head back and forth for hours, which the medical team of wildlife veterinarians and experts blamed on his utter boredom.

For the past three months, a Four Paws team including veterinarian Dr. Amil Khalil and the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board has been readying Kaavan to leave. Members of the welfare group will also accompany him to the sanctuary.