By: Jens Kastner

In a sport dominated by Taiwan’s gangsters, the island’s pigeon racers take young birds as far as 250 km out to sea and turn them loose to fly home. A huge number don’t make it. Each year, it’s believed that as many as a million birds drown, get lost or are netted by other gangsters.

That has set off the US-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which charges that the US$2.3 million annual industry practices cruel and unusual punishment to overstrained birds, with the laggards euthanized. But the show is sure to go on, since there is no room for foreign animal protectionists’ sensitivities if prize money for one race alone can reach the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of US dollars.

“These Americans have no clue and meddle in everything, and we are saddened by their accusations,” Zheng Ko-shu, vice president of one of the estimated 500 clubs in Taiwan that organize pigeon races, told Asia Sentinel. “Our members are people from all walks of lives who love their hobby, and they would never ever kill their own pigeons.”

Chen lounged in his Taipei clubhouse made of corrugated iron, accompanied by a stunningly attractive female acquaintance at least 20 years his junior. He nodded at a kitsch plastic trophy in the corner that’s supposedly all the pigeon racers are after. It’s untrue, he said, that the NT$1,000 to NT$5,000 ($33 to $165) fee breeders pay for each bird per race would make up a massive prize money pool. Usually 100 club members with 20 birds each participate. The collected money, he said, is money is “merely sufficient for organization and transportation.”

That Taiwan is the home of the most demanding type of pigeon racing in the world has to do with the fact that all gambling is illegal except for the government-run sports lottery. It also involves Taiwan’s limited landmass. Pigeon clubs located in central Taiwan can only fly a maximum of 200km over land before they are over water, no distance for older birds. Thus the clubs a few decades ago began to accept only very young birds for races, bringing Taiwan’s pigeon racing industry out of synch with its international counterparts.

Reflecting ever-closer ties between the sport and organized crime, gangsters in the 1990s resorted to erecting nets on mountains and hills along the race routes, first simply to eliminate competing birds, but then to collect ransom from their owners, who may have bred their colonies from pigeons bought in faraway places like Belgium for tens of thousands of euros each.

The lack of land and the increasingly brazen criminal manipulation left only one plausible direction for Taiwan’s pigeon racers – into the ocean. The birds are now released from boats some 250km off Taiwan’s shores, rain or shine, meaning that strong ocean winds and thick fog assure that only a small percentage makes it through.

“Some of the pigeons drown – though not as many as PETA says – while others get lost, flying to the Chinese mainland or little islands along the race routes,” said Wu Hung, CEO of the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan (EAST). “But PETA is certainly right in its allegations of large-scale euthanasia, because breeders, even if they do love their birds, must kill the slow ones in order to build up their reputations and to save money on food, medication and space.”

The pigeons can be suffocated and discarded in a blink of an eye, very much unlike an American greyhound or a Hong Kong racehorse.

In response to PETA drawing international attention to the pigeon races, Taiwan’s National Police Agency promised to look into the matter. But academic long-time observers of the industry harbor no illusions.

“Compared to casino-style gambling, the authorities do little to rein in pigeon racing despite everybody knowing that it is hand in hand with massive illegal gambling,” said Yen Cheng-Fang, professor and psychiatrist from the Department of Psychiatry, Kaohsiung Medical University Hospital.

“The first reason for the hands-off approach is that legal activities cover the illegal ones well in the organization of the races.”

The clubs are legal and so are the actual races, Yen said, but under-the-table prizes exchange hands that are hugely more valuable than what is documented. Second, the industry’s virtually unchallenged status is deeply rooted in Taiwan’s political system, he added. Taiwan is ostensibly a democracy with the rule of law, but actually the island is ruled by local factions.

“Each faction has much sway over elections, and the collaboration between these factions means legal and illegal business operations melt into a big grey zone,” he explained.

“The local police are in particular affected by this political structure, which explains why investigations into pigeon race-related gambling are frequently subject to constraints.”

In other words, the police only step in if big mediagenic events occur, like the kidnapping of birds or clashes between gambling groups. But, according to Yen, this rarely happens, as in Taiwanese pigeon racing both contestants and punters are thoroughly organized and extremely disciplined.

“Even if these people lose enormous amounts of money, they accept it quietly, not launching disputes,” Yen says.