For many visitors to South Africa, one of the most exciting birds to spot on safari is the ostrich. It is certainly an impressive animal; it’s the world’s largest bird, the fastest bird, and the bird with the largest eggs. Spotting a wild ostrich on safari, sprinting through a national park in a flurry of dazzling feathers is an amazing sight. But, ostriches are much more common than you might think, and the farming of ostriches in South Africa is a major livestock industry.
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The Victorian Ostrich Feather Boom
Interest in ostriches began with feathers. Ostrich feathers were first exported overseas around 1820, taken from hunting wild ostriches which were chased down and killed. The next year in 1821, the hunting of ostriches was made illegal. The first commercial ostrich farms began operating in 1869 in the Karoo and Eastern Cape regions, ideal climates for the ostriches to live.
Horses at a Funeral Spark an Ostrich Feather Craze
In the mid-nineteenth century, ostrich feathers were in fashion, and were considered extremely valuable. The Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852 featured twelve black horses pulling his hearse, each with a plume of black ostrich feathers sprouting from their headpieces. The custom took hold, becoming popular in all layers of the upper classes in Victorian fashion.
Receiving an ostrich feather in Europe was the result of a significant cross-continental journey. Once an ostrich was plucked, the feathers travelled by camel caravan all the way up to North Africa, for shipping across the Mediterranean to Europe, continuing overland to London, the ostrich feather capital, where they were dyed and sorted. Naturally, they became a very expensive commodity.
In fashion, ostrich feathers became popular when the French court wore hats embellished with the huge, luxurious feathers. They also appeared on jackets, dresses, and wrapped around the shoulders as feather boas. What began as 80 tame ostriches in 1865 soon expanded to over 32,000 animals ten years later. There was a steady supply of feathers which could be plucked and regrown. An ostrich could be harvested of feathers twice a year, each producing 100-200 feathers of varying types and value.
Expanding ostrich numbers proved to be a problem initially, as ostriches became easily scared in captivity and tended to destroy their own eggs. This was solved in 1869, when Arthur Douglass invented the ostrich egg incubator to help keep the eggs safe and expand ostrich numbers. In response to growing demand, competing farms in Australia and the USA began popping up too.
Open Topped Cars Destroy The Feather Market
The craze for ostrich feathers peaked around 1885, and ran strong as the 20th century started. Many South African farmers made fortunes, investing in luxurious homes nicknamed ‘feather palaces.’ Indeed, one of the most valuable items to sink with the Titanic was a cargo of ostrich feathers. But the market had become saturated, and prices in London and Paris began to fall in the first decade of the 20th century. This oversupply, combined with shifting fashions, the rise of automobiles (which rendered fancy hats impractical in the wind), and the outbreak of WW1 all but destroyed the industry.
Even when the industry folded, the feather palaces remained, sometimes on show as display homes, and also as bed and breakfasts, making use of their many bedrooms.
Farming Ostriches for Meat, Leather and Eggs
Most farms went back to their original livestock – sheep. Those that remained formed together into a cooperative in 1945. The focus was rebuilding the shattered ostrich industry, looking now at farming for meat, with the first ostrich abbatoir opening in 1964. Around 1970, a tannery was opened to produce ostrich hide. Ostrich leather, a rare and expensive material in its own right, is used in items such as bags and boots (and even car interiors), with a distinctive bumpy pattern from the feather follicles.
Today, 60% of the world’s ostrich products come from South Africa, with an estimated 350,000 commercially bred ostriches. There are around 350 registered ostrich farms in South Africa, with about 200 of those active ostrich producers. Meat, feathers and hides are all sold to overseas markets. Demand for feathers peaks during Brazil’s Carnival season, as well as a steady supply for cabaret houses in Paris.
The ostrich egg is the world’s largest egg, equivalent to the volume of 24 chicken eggs. They can sell for high prices too, selling for about $30-50USD a piece. Ostrich eggs can be sold for eating, and the shells are used for decoration, including being sold as souvenirs in markets!
Yet the industry still faces many challenges, such as widespread droughts and increasingly dry climates that threaten the ostriches farming conditions, and avian influenza that restricts to export of ostrich meat.
Oudtshoorn – The Ostrich Capital of The World
Oudtshoorn is the largest town in the Klein Karoo, and known as the ostrich capital of world, with the main industry being ostrich farming. While many ostrich farms are private farms, others cater towards visitors travelling the Garden Route to allow them to visit the ostriches, and learn about how they are farmed. The Safari Ostrich Farm leads tractor tours around the farm, educating visitors about the industry, breeding, and conservation. The Highgate Ostrich Farm is another popular ostrich farm catering towards tourists. Ostrich riding was once possible at some of these farms, but concerns about animal cruelty is phasing out this activity.
Far from being just a rare sighting on an African safari, the ostrich is actually the centre of a major livestock industry that has risen and fallen over the past 200 years. While not everyone may agree with the ethics about raising ostriches for their many products, the industry is certainly one of South Africa’s most interesting endeavours.