DANIE Kok kicked his boots in the red dust swirling through empty pens at the farm he manages near Oudtshoorn, the world's ostrich-farming capital. No ostriches were to be seen.

"We've been through some bad times but nothing comes close to this," says Mr Kok, who has worked at the Van Wykskraal farm for 30 years.

Last year more than 1600 of the farm's birds were taken away and killed after a strain of bird flu was detected. Such outbreaks, detected on 43 farms, led the government to ban all fresh ostrich-meat exports from SA, which had supplied 70% of world demand.

The ban will not be lifted until farmers meet new hygiene and registration requirements and the country has been disease-free for three months.

About 740 ostrich farms, and 20000 jobs in farms, slaughterhouses, tanneries and feather-processing plants, may be at risk in an industry that dates back to 1864. Feathers from the flightless birds were only outranked by gold, diamonds and wool among South African exports before the First World War.

More than 43000 ostriches have been culled in SA since the H5N2 virus was detected in April last year. While farmers have received R50m in government compensation, the industry had been earning nearly R1bn a year from meat exports.

The government now requires ostrich farmers to re-register their farms, chlorinate water and improve fencing and access controls.

"When they took our birds, they said we could restock in three weeks," says Arenhold Hooper, owner of the Highgate Ostrich Show Farm. "We've effectively been closed for more than a year now."

SA belongs to the World Organisation of Animal Health, which requires all birds to be culled on farms where avian flu is detected. The government has done everything required of it to have the ban lifted and farmers now have to comply with the new rules, says Mpho Maja, head of animal health at the Department of Agriculture. The outbreak is unrelated to the H5N1 type of bird flu that is fatal to humans. Before the ban, SA slaughtered 250000-300000 ostriches a year.

"There is so little research done on the H5 strains that we are guessing how best to handle the outbreak," says Piet Kleyn, acting CEO of the South African Ostrich Business Chamber. A clear plan for dealing with avian flu is lacking, says Ranger Gerebe, manager of the Cango ostrich show farm.

The European Union suspended ostrich-meat imports in 2004, after an avian flu outbreak. The ban cost SA R600m in exports and resulted in the slaughter of 26000 birds. While most farmers recovered, the current ban may be more harmful.

Bloomberg