Pigeon racing: Asian mob takes flutter on pigeons
31 August 2009
Pigeon racing has become a big money sport where the sums at stake can reach several million euros. Trainers of Belgian pigeons, much sought after in Asia, have now become the target of mafia crimes.
Ronny van Reet is a well-known name on the international pigeon racing circuit. On the occasion of the most recent national level race in Argenton (Lot-et-Garonne, France), the 42-year-old once again confirmed his reputation as one of Belgium's best pigeon trainers, but celebrity has come at a high cost. "When you have a reputation in a small world like this one, you have to be very much on your guard," explains a demoralized Van Reet.
On the night of Thursday 20 August, 14 of his "little ones" were stolen from his pigeon loft in Mol (Flanders). The birds were later found dead in a nearby wood. Each of them had had one foot removed to facilitate the theft of their identification tags. "It's a terrible blow for a pigeon fancier, who lives and breathes for his pigeons," adds Van Reet. "Three times a week, I take them down to Valenciennes for special training. I keep them on a diet of very expensive feed and special vitamins. They were not the best pigeons, but they were specially chosen for their strength and intelligence."
Shortly after the theft, one of Van Reet's neighbours alerted police, when he saw three Asian men behaving suspiciously in the nearby woods. Suspecting them of illegal garbage dumping, he took several photos of the men and their car. The search for the trio ended when two Chinese nationals and their interpreter voluntarily presented themselves at a police station on the night of Saturday 22, August. "The story and the photos had been posted on several pigeon racing websites, that's how they found out the police were looking for them," says the police superintendent in Mol, Ludo Meeuws. The car in the pictures belonged to the interpreter. When questioned the two Chinese men insisted they were innocent, and that they had come to Belgium to buy pigeons legally. "There was an eyewitness when they dumped the birds, but for the police, a pigeon without an identification tag is like a car without an engine number. There's not much we can do," remarks Meeuws. "The other problem was that the owner of the pigeons didn't want to give us the tag numbers. There are a lot contradictory details in the statements in this case that have to be cleared up."
25,000 euros for a pigeon
Van Reet believes that the thieves will attempt to use the identification tags to pass off valueless pigeons as potential champions raised by a famous Belgian pigeon breeder. "It can easily cost 70 euros to ship a pigeon to China," says the unhappy breeder. "It costs nothing to transport the tags, and you don't attract any attention." Birds raised by well-known Belgian breeders are much sought after by pigeon fanciers in countries like China, Taiwan and Japan. "Chinese enthusiasts are willing to spend up to 25,000 euros on a Belgian racing pigeon," explains Rudi Hendrikx, an amateur trainer and the owner of the Belgian pigeon fanciers' magazine Duivenkrant. "That's why it's strange that the Chinese should be behind the theft. In the Far East, there is a good market for live racing pigeons, which are used for breeding. But without a certificate of ownership and an official pedigree record, the tags will be virtually useless over there. However, that is not the case in Eastern European countries like Poland, where Belgian tags can be sold for as much as 100 euros each on the black market."
There has been a significant upsurge in the number of pigeon thefts in the country over the last few years. "In other countries, Belgium is regarded as the birthplace of pigeon racing," explains Pierre De Rijst, Chairman of the Royal Federation of Belgian Pigeon Racing Fanciers. "On the night of Saturday 22, they stole another 50 pigeons from the loft of another well known pigeon fancier in Antwerp. The situation is getting out of hand. Breeders are now having to invest in video surveillance systems."
Pigeon racing and the Chinese mafia
Jo Herbots earns a living as a pigeon broker and exporter of live birds from Belgium to the Far East. "In Taiwan, pigeon racing attracts a lot of money," he explains. "Sometimes the amount in the pot can be as much as ten million euros. Everyone wants to bet on pigeons trained by Belgian breeders." Some pigeon breeders, like Albert Pieters, a native of Herdersem and secretary of the young Belgian pigeon fanciers' association, warn of the increasing influence of an Asian pigeon fanciers' mafia. "When there is a large amount of money at stake, that is because there is gambling," explains Herbots. "And with huge prizes to be won, millions are being lost on these races." Pierre De Rijst, Chairman of the Royal Federation of Belgian Pigeon Racing Fanciers, is also aware that pigeon racing is attracting more and more attention from the world of gambling – which is why "there are now a lot of websites, which allow people to bet on the result of international races." Writing on the development of the sport in the The Tapei Times, Yang Yungnane, a professor of political science at Taiwan's Cheng Kung University, notes that in some cases, pigeons on the championship circuit have even been kidnapped.