BEIJING Guarding against avian flu, which has forced a mass cull of birds in China, pigeon fancier Wang Jincang paid out nearly $400 (323 pounds) to get his 200 racing pigeons vaccinated and fortified for the onset of the spring racing season.
"I normally choose imported medicines, which are several times more expensive than some local brands," Wang told Reuters as he lined up to enter birds for contests that begin this month.
The cost of vaccination is small change compared with how much pigeon enthusiasts can pay to buy prized breeds.
An egg can cost a few hundred dollars, while the price for a full-grown bird with a coveted bloodline can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In 2013, a Chinese businessman paid 310,000 euros (nearly $334,000) for a Belgian-bred racing pigeon, whereas local birds can be bought for less than $100.
Wang doesn't want to say how much he has invested in his birds, though he spends almost $1,500 a month looking after their health, and describes his pastime as wagering time and money.
"Pigeon racing is essentially gambling. We are betting our time and fortune on the birds, similar to horse-betting," Wang said.
Any form of gambling is banned in China, but pigeon races, which are flown over hundreds of kilometres, fall under the grey category of social sports.
China hosts more than 100,000 pigeon races annually, some of them organised by corporate-backed professional pigeon clubs like Huashunde, supported by Beijing Huashunde Power Engineering Ltd, and Hongjin Pigeon Club, backed by PetroChina Huabei Oil Field Co.
Prize money has been rising. A club in Beijing is set to award 70 million yuan (over $10 million) in total prize money at its autumn championship.
Ge, a 39-year-old pigeon owner in Fujian, has 80 pigeons. So far, they have helped him win 150,000 yuan (nearly $22,000).
"We aim for good scores and big rewards at contests," said Ge. "Otherwise, why raise pigeons?"
(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)