Once upon a time, there were giant birds all around the world. New Zealand had its moas, taller than today’s ostriches. They went extinct 600 years ago, eaten to death.
Then there were the elephant birds of Madagascar, one species of which topped three metres tall. They weighed 400kg and must also have been very tasty, because they too vanished into extinction a few hundred years ago.
The cassowaries of New Guinea and the rheas of South America still survive in diminished numbers, with only the ostrich of Africa and the emu of Australia being farmed. With the moa and the elephant bird gone, the ostrich is the giant now, with some males over 2.5m high.
At around 100kg though, the ostrich is a far leaner specimen than the Madagascan elephant bird. The secret to its survival is long exposure to the wiles of humans.The ostrich has formidable defences, including the ability to lie flat and hide, large sharp toes that can disembowel a human with ease, and an impressive turn of speed.
Still, humans have hunted ostriches for millennia. You’ll sometimes see puzzling stone walls stretching for kilometres across the Karoo. Some have speculated that these were used to trap these flightless birds.
When their fluffy feathers were all the rage over a century ago, ostriches were mercilessly hunted. Then the breakthrough was made of keeping them in captivity, and ostrich farmers made fortunes. Some of the worst veld damage in the Karoo was caused by confining them. The scars still remain.
In the early 1900s, a single perfect feather would get you enough money to buy a ticket on a cruising ship from Cape Town to Europe.
The industry went white-hot when word filtered down to Oudtshoorn of a Super Ostrich with remarkable plumage: the Barbary of the south Sahara.
In 1911, a man called Russell Thornton was given a top-secret mission by the South African government – to find and bring back breeding stock of these fabulous creatures.
What followed was vintage Hollywood: French spies, secret meetings and a desert march to Timbuktu and beyond.
Eventually they found the elusive Barbary ostriches, captured 156 of them and frog-marched them in giant baskets to a ship moored in Lagos Harbour.
Fortunes were made off ostrich feathers. Palaces were built. For years it looked like the good times would never end. At the peak of the plume boom in 1913, South Africa exported a staggering 100 000 tons of feathers. But a year later, World War I broke out, and no one had any more time for feathered fripperies.
There’s still a market for them these days, though. Every year, the samba dancers of Rio de Janeiro’s carnival dress up in nearly 15 tons of ostrich feathers freshly imported from the Little Karoo.
But ostrich feathers have an altogether modern use as well. They’ve long been standard-issue as feather dusters, but the electronics industry has also discovered that they attract dust without discharging static electricity – a very useful talent.
And as was the case with moas and elephant birds, ostrich meat is delicious.
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