queen's pigeons die south africa
Photo: Screenshot from PETA's video about the undercover pigeon racing investigation in South Africa

PETA US has revealed findings from its investigation into the fate of birds used in the gruelling South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race (SAMDPR) that expose the enormous suffering, deaths, gambling, environmental violations, and potential financial crimes involved in the event.

PETA US discovered that all the birds entered by Queen Elizabeth II, a long-time patron of pigeon racing and participant in the SAMDPR, died at the race loft during quarantine in South Africa between June and August 23, 2019. The investigation also revealed that President Cyril Ramaphosa recently built a pigeon loft and plans to breed and race expensive pigeons but allegedly wants to keep this secret from the public.

PETA confirmed to SAPeople that they contacted both the Queen and President Ramaphosa with letters ahead of the launch of the investigation but have received no response so far.

PETA and its affiliates are urging Queen Elizabeth and the South African president to end their involvement in pigeon racing and convert their breeding lofts into sanctuaries for pigeon “refugees” from the industry.

South Africa’s race known as ‘the Olympics of pigeon racing’

The investigation shows that, every year, thousands of baby pigeons are sent from around the world to the SAMDPR, deemed by pigeon “fanciers” to be “the Olympics of pigeon racing”.

The birds are forced to fly in intense heat, often facing headwinds and thunderstorms. Many of them become disorientated and die from exhaustiondehydration, starvation, or attacks by predators. Of the 537 South African–bred birds who started the 2020 race series, only 125 made it to the finish. In total, more than 2,850 birds were lost in SAMDPR training flights or races.

But many die before the race even begins: some 5,000 birds from 36 countries were dispatched to the 2020 contest, of which a quarter died while being transported or quarantined – before training and racing commenced. All of the Queen’s birds died during the most recent quarantine. Sara Blackshaw, the managing director of the race, admitted, “We had a terrible virus that decimated our loft.”

However, PETA told SAPeople that even if the Queen’s birds hadn’t been hit by the virus, only 22% (of the nearly 4,000 birds remaining after quarantine) survived until the end of the final race in February 2020. “Only 5 out of 42 birds the Queen sent over the past 6 years survived through until the end of the final race,” says PETA. “The deaths are rampant every year in transport, quarantine, training and races. That’s why the participants refer to it as a ‘slaughter race’.”

As the coronavirus pandemic grips the world, awareness has grown regarding the risk of facilitating the emergence of dangerous zoonotic diseases by confining thousands of animals in a crowded space.

The SAMDPR’s own veterinarian told the investigator: “[Newcastle disease is] a big, big worry, but we underplay it. And we isolated a new strain in birds that came in from Holland … that can go to other birds. And it can go into the poultry industry, and that’s a billion dollar industry …. We don’t like discussing it with people who [are] not involved, because then they go and say [these] guys are spreading all these bad germs around and our kids are gonna die because they are racing pigeons.”

“We have been monitoring the SAMDPR for many years. Every year, we see alarming statistics regarding the high number of losses at the race,” says Arno de Klerk, special projects unit manager with the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA). “These sentient beings either suffer and die in the wild or join other pigeon flocks, raising serious environmental concerns, including potentially spreading harmful diseases and threatening public health.”

South African law prohibits certain activities involving invasive species, such as pigeons, from being carried out without a permit. Many of these activities are central to the SAMDPR, and therefore, race organisers were required to obtain an invasive species permit. PETA US and the NSPCA requested access to this permit from the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) and were told that it had no record of such a permit. Thus, PETA US and the NSPCA have submitted a legal complaint requesting that DEFF take enforcement action and prohibit the 2021 SAMDPR from going ahead.

“If you can’t kill a pigeon, you will never be a pigeon fancier”

PETA US also documented that pigeons who don’t produce top results in races or are unsuccessful breeders are often killed in gruesome ways. A South African fancier told the PETA US investigator, “If you can’t kill a pigeon, you will never be a pigeon fancier and you will never become a top pigeon fancier. If you can’t wake up in the morning saying, “What pigeon am I going to kill this morning?” you will never be a top [pigeon fancier]. … When I come back home, I’m gonna have to start killing pigeons.”

President Ramaphosa has allegedly bought pigeons to breed and race

PETA US says it also discovered that President Ramaphosa has allegedly bought 15 pigeons from Soetdoring Lofts for R130,000 and 13 pigeons from a friend for an undisclosed amount. PETA says the President has built a loft on his Phala Phala Wildlife farm and plans to breed the pigeons, racing the offspring in the SAMDPR and other major races.

The South African president’s farm manager and the person responsible for building the loft stated that Ramaphosa wants to host a race on the Phala Phala property as well. The manager told the PETA US investigator, “[L]ots of things I do on the phone … are under the radar. Because we don’t want to be in the newspaper – ‘The president buy[s] a dove for a million rand and he can’t afford it. He don’t feed the poor and now he buys a dove for a million rand. There’s so many poor people no food and that and how can he buy this and that.’ Ja, none of the things he buys can go under his name.”

Apparent financial crimes – pigeons ‘better than diamonds’ for moving money out of SA

Lastly, PETA US uncovered what appear to be financial crimes and has submitted a legal complaint to the National Gambling Board and the Gauteng, Free State, and Western Cape gambling regulation authorities regarding the apparently unlicensed gambling enterprise. The group also discovered apparent tax evasion, avoidance of exchange control laws, and money laundering in South African pigeon racing.

One fancier told the investigator that pigeons are “better than diamonds” for moving money out of the country without being monitored.

Another explained, “They use the birds to launder the money, sure of it.” Accordingly, PETA US has requested that the South African Revenue Service, the South African Reserve Bank, and the Financial Intelligence Centre investigate this apparent criminality. 

“Pigeon racing is not a sport – it’s a blood sport”

“The suffering and deaths of pigeons forced to race in the SAMDPR starkly shows that pigeon racing is not a sport – it’s a blood sport,” says Jared Goodman, PETA Foundation Vice President and Deputy General Counsel. “Considering the extensive cruelty, environmental and public health concerns, and seemingly widespread illegal activities involved in the race, we respectfully implore South African authorities to take action to the fullest extent of the law.”

PETA – whose motto reads, in part, that “animals are not ours to use for entertainment” – notes that pigeons have their own culture, mate for life, and are devoted parents, both making milk in their crops to feed their babies. They also pass the “mirror test”, which demonstrates self-awareness and intelligence in animals.

WATCH VIDEO Queen’s Pigeons perish in South African Million Dollar ‘Slaughter Race’

In pigeon-racing investigations on four continents, PETA US and its affiliates have exposed cruelty to pigeons used for racing on a massive scale – including huge numbers of casualties, the unregulated release of birds from international locations, and forcing birds to take dangerous flights over large bodies of water – and revealed that those deemed insufficiently valuable as racers or breeders are often killed by breaking their necks.

PETA opposes speciesism, a human-supremacist worldview. All information supplied in this article is from PETA. For more information, please visit PETA.org.uk.