(Kortrijk, BEL) - Rich Chinese pigeon fanciers are offering tens of thousands of euros to buy Belgian champions, to the despair of local pigeon-lovers unable to compete in such sky-high auction bids.
Pigeon-breeding is an old Chinese passion, even though long-distance pigeon-racing has never caught on the way it has in northern Europe.
In Belgium, the Netherlands, northern France, and Britain pigeon-racing can take place over distances of over 1,000 kilometres (660 miles) with birds vying to return as quickly as possible to their home roost, their homing instinct allowing them to find the way.
Champion racing pigeons can win large sums in prize money for their owners.
In Belgium, pigeon-fancying had been on the decline in recent years, but the arrival of Chinese aficionados has changed the market's dynamic.
Pigeon racing in China goes back to the Ming dynasty, when they were used as carrier pigeons. Banned during the Cultural Revolution, it made a comeback in the 1970s.
According to Chinese state media, there are about 300,000 people in the country involved in the sport.
In late January, a rich Chinese industrialist Hun Zhen Yu came to Europe and paid 250,000 euros ($328,000) for "Special Blue", a world record for a champion of legend.
The bird's former owner, Pieter Veenstra from Holland, has sold 245 pigeons over the past few years for more than two million euros, according to the specialised Pigeon Paradise (PIPA) website which claims that half its customers are from China.
Rich Chinese fanciers will pay very large amounts "if the pigeon has won several prizes and is of good lineage," said Nikolaas Gyselbrecht, the head of PIPA, speaking on the sidelines of the second world pigeon fair in Kortrijk, Belgium.
"I think Belgium is the kingdom of homing pigeons," said one of the fair's visitors, Johnson Kiang from Taiwan.
But not everyone is pleased by the Chinese invasion.
"I find it too expensive. 200,000 euros, that's not a normal price," said Marcel Candenir, who travelled to the fair from Lille in northern France.
"It's daft, it's killing the sport, how do you expect a young person to start out?" asked fellow Frenchman Gilles Vanneuville.
Willy Anquinet, a 75-year-old from the village of Gooik, near Brussels, fell victim to this new golden goose-like craze.
In early February, one of his champions -- the "Black" -- was stolen from his pigeon loft.
"I'd been offered 15,000 euros (19,600 dollars), but I wanted 20,000 so that I could buy a new car," he said.
A few days after a visit by would-be customers, "the lock to the pigeon loft was broken".
"They stole "Black" and tried to take another, but just broke its wing," he said, saddened by the loss both of his champion, and by the injury that will force the second bird to retire from competition.
Marc De Cock, who owns 600 pigeons in Temse, northern Belgium, has invested in a top-of-the-range secure lock-up for his birds, some of which are worth 100,000 euros.
They are watched by 15 video cameras, have their own shower and solarium, a sort of sauna for pigeons, and are treated like top sport champions.
De Cock is looking to sell many of his birds to Asian clients.
"The Chinese attach a lot of importance to prestige. Even if they don't want to breed them, or race them, they want to buy a luxury pigeon much like an art collector would like to buy a Rubens or a Rembrandt," said De Cock who remains very discreet about his earnings.