Coming in on a wing and some flair: Meet SA's pigeon king

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Coming in on a wing and some flair: Meet SA's pigeon king

As world champion racer, Samuel Mbiza has turned his hobby into a golden ticket

Reuters

The pigeons are coming home after a day of training. They live at Samuel Lofts, a club for racing pigeons in Walkerville, 30km south of Johannesburg.
The owner of the club, pigeon fancier and world champion racer Samuel Mbiza, has worked with pigeons since he was a child shooting birds out of the sky with his sling-shot. 
Mbiza says it became more than simple fun after his mother bought him a fantail – a fancy pigeon with more feathers than other breeds.“There is something about these pigeons, the way they look and they look athletic and the way they behave, and also their intelligence; they are very, very intelligent,” he said.“As a young boy we kept pigeons, but what you call them ... pack pigeons, your street pigeons, so we would take our slings and shoot them on top of roofs and then tame them and so forth. But my mother was a person who was unique and she loved unique things, different things. So besides those normal ones that we shot from the roofs, my mother bought me fantails, those ones with big tails, the beautiful ones,” Mbiza added.
Last year, Mbiza made history by bidding and buying Belgium’s best long-distance racing pigeon for a record $350,000 (R5m).His plan is to breed the bird, nick-named the Usain Bolt pigeon, and create a legion of champion racers for South Africa.There are over 4,000 pigeon fanciers in South Africa but Mbiza is one of few black breeders and racers. 
Since Mbiza started the Samuel Lofts seven years ago, he has built a team of 650 birds in different stages of training and maturity. 
He is also working on getting more, young, black South Africans involved.Jerry Khumalo is Samuel Lofts’s manager. He is in charge of training and supervises the care of the birds.Getting pigeons fit to race can take up to a year. They must be old enough and used to their “home”. For a basic race, birds are taken a distance away and the one that returns home first, wins.The pigeons are transported in specially modified trucks with a hatch that lets all the birds in the different baskets out at the same time. 
“I teach them how to fly outside, how to train them, so in the morning we wake up, first we take them out, we chase them for one hour, 30 minutes, 15 minutes, when they are still young. When they grow up we start to take them out in the bakkie, we basket them take them out 20km, 40km, 60km up to 100, like from this week we train them 100km,” said Khumalo.The sport is worth millions of dollars. In some races, first prize can go up to $1m (R14,6m) and the entry fee as high as $1,000 (R14,000). 
Mbiza says he wants to build a loft in Soweto so he can get young people from disadvantaged backgrounds interested in the ancient but unique sport. 
“Everyone knows that in South Africa we are facing a lot of challenges financially, especially in the township. There are no more jobs, things are not good, so why not a sport that as a good hobby, takes them away from crime and also a sport that can empower them financially? There is not a better one than pigeons racing,” he said.Animal rights groups have been calling for a ban on pigeon racing, saying it is cruel.
Pigeons flying long distances are exposed to various hazards like prey and other flying objects or power lines. Some die on the way home, while others get injured.
There have also been reported cases of doping, something activists say is difficult to clamp down on.
Mbiza says he loves his pigeons and treats them like royalty.

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