Bird flu has devastated Thailand's poultry industry, but it has also caused big problems for people who raise birds for singing instead of eating.
Songbirds, particularly the Zebra dove, have long been prized by the Muslims of southern Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia for their exquisite, sweet cooing, and owners travel across the region's borders to contests to show them off.
Breeding Zebra doves for sale has become something of a cottage industry in Jana district of Thailand's southern Songkhla province, widely considered Southeast's Asia top site for raising the birds. Some 20 major farms and a host of smaller establishments breed 20,000 of the birds annually, according to Somai Kwantongyim, president of the district's Zebra doves breeding association.
With a single bird worth between 100,000 to 2 million baht (US$2,450-48,965; Ђ2,040-40,775), breeders were taking home more than 50 million baht (US$1.2 million, Ђ1 million) a year exporting the "golden" birds to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, he said.
But regulations aimed at containing the spread of deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu _ by restricting the trade and transport of birds _ have disrupted the staging of contests as well as the lucrative trade in the avian crooners. Since its outbreak in 2003, the virus has infected at least 20 people in Thailand, 13 of whom have died, and forced mass cullings of poultry across the nation.
Somai bemoans the fact that since bird flu struck Thailand in late 2003 the sector has been in a slump. Zebra doves, he said, are raised in a safe and healthy manner and have never been found to have bird flu, yet are subject to restrictive anti-bird flu measures by health and agricultural authorities.
The sector used to register more than 400 million baht (US$9.8 million, Ђ8.2 million) in revenue annually but that has now dropped to about 50 million baht (US$1.2 million, Ђ1 million), said Vichai Rungraungchaikul, president of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Zebra Doves Contest Association. The contests that drive the market for the birds can be held only with great difficulty, and the number of participants has been steadily dwindling, he said.
The most important contest for the sweetest sounding birds is held in the capital district of Yala province each March, and used to attract as many as 5,000 winged competitors. But this year's competition, postponed from March to May, attracted only 1,200 birds, and Vichai fears the number will drop even further next year.
An old saying in Thailand's Muslim communities is "Nok khao dee mee kha tao sampao thong" _ "a good Zebra dove is as valuable as a golden boat" _ and it still rings true in the far south of Thailand, where almost every other house seems to have a bird cage out front. But now, many of those cages are empty, the AP reported.