Farming exotic animals is a growth business in Ukraine
YASNOHORODKA, Ukraine – Early in the morning on March 29, two employees of the Ostrich Valley farm, some 30 kilometers west of Kyiv, harness up a pair of draft horses to a wagon and fill the tank it carries with water. More than 400 ostriches are waiting for their morning drink.
It takes several trips to ferry the heavy load around the pens to water all the birds at the farm, which also functions as wildlife park.
Founded in the 2000s, Ostrich Valley was one of the first farms in Ukraine to start breeding the giant African birds. Over a decade later, more and more Ukrainian farmers are choosing to farm ostriches, snails and other exotic animals rather than plain old cattle.
Moreover, Ukraine’s government has upped its support for farming exotic animals. The 2017 state budget earmarks Hr 4 billion ($148 million) in state support for farmers who produce vegetables and breed cattle, poultry and, for the first time, exotic animals. In 2016 state support for agriculture was worth only Hr 2 billion ($74 million).
Hennadiy Chyzhykov, the president of Ukraine’s Chamber of Commerce president, gave the Kyiv Post the official statistics for ostrich farming in the country.
“There are more than 60 ostrich farms in Ukraine with a total 6,500 birds, and the number is growing,” Chyzhykov said.
But Ludmyla Zhuk, the Ostrich Valley farm’s manager, said there are actually many more ostriches in Ukraine than the government thinks.
“We know about more than 100 commercial farms. But, according to Ukrainian law, a businessperson only has to register a family ostrich farm as a commercial farm if they keep more than 12 birds,” said Zhuk.
While the ostrich business is still only developing and can’t even produce enough ostrich meat for export, another exotic farm animal – the edible snail – has seen its exports from Ukraine rise by 115 times since 2013. The snails are supplied to the markets of France, Lithuania, Romania and other countries.
According to the Ukrainian Snail Association, in 2016 Ukraine exported more than 380 tons of snails – seven times more than Ukraine’s signature product, lard, known in Ukraine as salo. Ukraine exported just over 51 tons of salo (lard) in 2016.
Alexey Doroshenko, a Samopomich Party lawmaker and the head of the Retail Trade Suppliers Association of Ukraine said that the map of Ukraine is now dotted with ostrich farms that have started up in recent years.
“There are ostrich farms in practically every oblast of Ukraine – they can be tracked down by special road signs,” Doroshenko said.
Ostriches are hardly the easiest birds to farm.
An adult bird can weigh up to 150 kilograms, and stands from 1.2 to 2.8 meters in height. The birds’ small heads contain 40-gram brains and they are quite aggressive – they can kill large animals (including humans) with a powerful kick from their clawed feet. They can also run at up to 70 kilometers per hour.
So why are so many Ukrainian farmers interested in breeding these giant, dangerous birds?
“It’s waste-free production,” Zhuk explained. “You can sell everything, starting with live ostriches, to ostrich meat, the claws, skin, feathers and even the eyelashes – which are often used for making cosmetics brushes. One ostrich egg weighs 1.5 kilograms and can feed ten people.”
A three-month-old ostrich chick costs Hr 2,500 ($92), and the price for a bird grows by Hr 1,000 every month after that.
Even Ukraine’s fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych bought some of the birds for his private zoo at his luxurious Mezhyhirya estate. It’s not known if he ate any of them.
Yanukovych bought some adult birds in 2010, and, as he said in an interview he gave to the BBC in June 2015, “supported” them until he was forced to flee to Russia after the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014.
Yanukovych bought his ostrich flock for around Hr 80,000 ($2,960) – a fairly average price for a small flock of live birds. An egg costs Hr 300 ($11), while meat costs Hr 300–500 ($11–18) per kilogram.
Many farms, like Ostrich Valley, also take advantage of the public’s curiosity about the quirky avians to run an ostrich zoo as a side business. Zhuk said more than five tourist groups usually visit Ostrich Valley every day to take pictures and sample some ostrich meat and eggs in the farm’s restaurant. It’s even possible to ride a bird. “Every summer we put on an ostrich race, though for adults only and only after the client signs a consent agreement. Such races are pretty dangerous, but entertaining,” said Zhuk.
Wealthy Ukrainians also buy ostriches instead of guard dogs to protect their mansions.
“An adult male ostrich faithfully guards his territory, and will even kill an intruder. But they can only remember things for about five days, so owners have to frequently interact with their pets to stay safe,” Zhuk said.
Snails outpace ostriches
Although snails are the zoological opposite of ostriches in many respects, the growth of the snail-farming business has outpaced that of farming the giant birds. Chyzhykov said Ukrainian ostrich traders, for now, only supply the domestic market, as they can’t produce enough meat or eggs for export.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Agrarian Business Club reports that Ukrainian export of snails have grown from a mere three tons in 2013 to 380 tons in 2016.
The Snail Ukraine Association press service told the Kyiv Post that there has been a ban on collecting Burgundy snails in most of the Western European countries since 2010, as over-harvesting of the gastropods was damaging the balance of ecosystems.
Despite that, France has lost none of its appetite for “les escargots” – in that country alone people munch their way through 25,000 tons of snails a year.
The UK’s Daily Mail reported in 2014 that since 2013, Western Europe has been importing most of its edible snails from Eastern Europe – mostly Romania, Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland.
However, Dmytro Butenko, the founder of snail farm “Eco Ulitka” (Eco Snail) in Vinnitsa Oblast, told the Kyiv Post that snails frequently sold as a Polish product in France may actually be Ukrainian-raised Burgundy snails.
“Our (Eastern European) neighbors buy Ukrainian snails as a raw material for $1.50 per kilogram, process them, and re-export them to the West for $5–6 per kilogram,” said Butenko.
On his farm, Butenko raises up to 70 tons of snails per season (from spring too summer). The snails on his farms are processed by hand, but he dreams Ukraine will one day build its own snail processing plant. However, he said such a plant would only turn a profit if it processed more than 500 tons a season.
“Last year the Europeans increased the snail import quota for Ukraine, so everybody started breeding snails. But people have been breeding and collecting snails since 1991. Buyers just didn’t trust Ukrainian snails because of the Chornobyl disaster,” said Butenko.
The Snail Association press service said there are up to ten commercial snail farms in Ukraine.
Still, most Ukrainian-produced snails are not farmed, but are illegally collected in the forests of western and central Ukraine, the association said.
Three curious female ostriches check out a photographer from their pen at the Ostrich Valley commercial farm in the village of Yasnohorodka in Kyiv Oblast on March 29. (Volodymyr Petrov)