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Georgian Ostrich Farm Fails To Take Off

An ostrich farmer's dream of riches is dashed by export headaches and conservative Georgian palates.
By Giga Chikhladze

By the gate stands a battered plaster bust of Stalin. Bird feathers whirl in the air and a few dogs munching on bones pay no attention to a rare visitor. But then this down-at-heel Georgian scene comes alive to an amazing spectacle: tall African birds run about, wiggling their legs, twisting their necks and spreading their wings.


The Teleti ostrich farm, the only one in the south Caucasus, is owned by livestock breeder Revaz Robakidze who long dreamt of rearing the birds and selling their meat to European market for big profits. His farm, next to an old monastery, is big by international standards, with more than 100 animals, but the returns have so far been disappointingly small.


"By European standards, Georgia is an infected country - it has anthrax and other animal and bird diseases," explained Robakidze. "This by itself has completely shut off our access to Europe. America and Asia have enough suppliers. And we can't export ostrich meat to Africa! Today we are mainly working for Georgia. We sent a bit to Armenia and Azerbaijan. In both these countries they are planning to open ostrich farms."


Robakidze - who converted the former Teleti collective farm, which reared broiler chickens - decided to rear African ostriches because they are the hardiest variety.


Though tough, they have a rather bashful side to them, which the farm has had to make allowances for. The ostrich pens all contain small huts. "Ostriches can't mate in the presence of a humans, they are very shy," explained Sergo, one of the farm workers. "Some males cannot approach a female and vice versa. We even get scenes of jealousy."


The Teleti farm - which has been built up without any help from foreign specialists, international loan organisations or Georgia's agriculture ministry - produces two to three thousand chicks a year, depending on what kind of orders it gets from its main and practically only client, the Georgian meat producer Nikora. And they only sell their meat in Tbilisi.


"Prices in Georgia can't be compared with those in Europe," Robakidze said. "A ten-day ostrich chick costs 150 dollars in Europe and 70 over here. For a year-old bird the prices are 700 and 300 dollars. Nikora sells our ostrich meat for 10 lari (about five US dollars) a kilo, in Russia it costs up to 35 dollars a kilo and in Europe up to 70 dollars. "


Russia is a growing market, with as many as 40 ostrich farms, rearing more than 1000 birds each. Russian economists say that demand there currently outstrips supply.


"We could work well with Russia," said Robakidze. "But because of the constant political tension there are economic problems. Plus, the new visa regime was introduced just when we were ready to send our first consignment of ostrich meat to Moscow. We had to postpone the order."


Georgia has some experience of rearing "exotic" creatures. Twenty-five years ago a farm in Kolkhida bred frogs and exported them directly to France. Eastern Georgia used to have farms specialising in pheasants and foxes, which were bought by hunters from all over the Soviet Union.


Robakidze got the ostrich idea when he was taking a tourist trip through Europe. A friend and a bank loan got him started six years ago. He now employs twenty people, although they earn less than 30 dollars a month. His profit margin is around 20 per cent. This, however, fluctuates strongly with the price of grain, the main food for the birds.


Why ostriches? That's the question people often ask Robakidze. First of all, he replies, because of the meat. It is dark in colour, but tender, similar to veal, low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein. Secondly, a single ostrich egg, weighing 1.4 kg is equivalent to more than 20 chicken eggs and can feed a large family.


Ostrich hide is also a valuable commodity and is made into women's clothing, shoes and handbags. So are ostrich feathers, oil and the birds' tendons, which can be used to replace human tendons. Ophthalmologists have used parts of their eyes for transplants, and sections of their brains have been studied as part of efforts to advance understanding of Alzheimer's disease.


But in Georgia, it is only the meat that gets used - although it is not to everyone's liking.


"I ate that ostrich meat," said Ivane, a resident of the neighbouring village, Zemo Teleti. "I bought some cheap, when they were packing a shipment. It was nothing special. Personally I prefer a grilled pig. It's tastier and it looks better. These ones don't look very edible."


So a business that's taken off in other parts of the world is still as grounded in Georgia as the ostriches themselves.


Giga Chikhladze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi


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