The deadly odds of Philippine pigeon racing

Flying high: Jaime Lim, a well-known pigeon fancier, showing one of his racing pigeons in Manila. — AFP

Manila: It is a brutal 600km gauntlet during which competitors face searing heat, wild seas, vicious predators, and the threat of kidnapping.

Only one in 10 will finish.

This is the MacArthur competition -- the Philippines’ longest homing pigeon race. It’s a tough challenge for the birds and a tense affair for the owners.

“Compared to Europe and the United States, we have lots of predators here and a lot of people who shoot these birds,” said Jaime Lim, one of the Philippines’ best-known pigeon fanciers – as the pursuit’s devotees are known.

“Fishing nets are set up in the mountains to capture these birds. That’s a major problem nowadays,” the 68-year-old construction magnate added.

Racing pigeons can be worth thousands of dollars but some that are kidnapped are sold off to unscrupulous fanciers for as little as US$14 (RM58.40), Lim explained.

It’s a nefarious side effect of the hobby’s swelling popularity in the Philippines, where there are now at least 300 clubs with thousands of members.

This mirrors increasing popularity in other Asian countries, particularly India, Taiwan and China.

In March, a Chinese buyer spent a record ?1.25mil (RM5.8mil) at an auction for Belgium’s best long-distance racing pigeon of all time.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the sport began in Belgium, where the first long-distance race was held in 1818. The European nation remains the global hub for enthusiasts.

The appeal in the Philippines seems to be a mix, including the bird’s fascinating navigational skills and a touch of hunger for a quick profit.

Fancier Mary Grace San Jose, 38, is from the poor district of Tondo in Manila and says one draw is that racing is open to everyone.

“What is important is you are able to feed them,” she said, adding: “You may not afford what the rich give their birds... but that’s fine.”

Money remains part of the appeal for many though.

“It does not look good, but the opportunity to gamble is part of it,” Eddie Noble, an official of the 1,000-member Metro Manila Fanciers Club, said.

Noble said the main driver, though, is the pure excitement of “racing these birds with a phenomenal ability to find their way home”.

Science has never concretely explained the homing pigeon’s skills.

The two more popular theories posit that they follow the Earth’s magnetic field lines and rely on their sense of smell.

One new hypothesis says that the birds use ultra-low frequency sounds that map out the terrain. — AFP

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