This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
Pigeon racing is a big deal in Indonesia, especially on the island of Java. In 2017, The Jakarta Post reported that the national sport of flying doves around rice paddies was causing dozens of divorces in the Purbalingga regency—primarily from women who felt neglected by their husbands and annoyed that they were spending all their time with their birds instead of their families.
“Most of the petitioners are wives who have filed divorce petitions for economic reasons because their husbands are too addicted to pigeon racing,” a clerk with the court, Nur Aflah, told reporters at the time. “In Purbalingga, there are many female workers while most men are unemployed. Most of the husbands end up becoming ‘pilots.’ Here, a ‘pilot’ does not fly a plane but races pigeons.”
Piloting pigeons can be a lucrative business, given the high profit margins and low entrance fees. Birds typically cost about 20,000 rupiah each ($2 AUD) while race winners can rake in anywhere between $7,500 and $10,000—if they manage to pip the thousands of other competitors at the post. But it can also be a hefty upfront investment, with some pilots paying thousands, even millions of dollars for the right pigeon.
A man in West Java recently paid 1 billion rupiah ($101,700 AUD) for a particularly promising racing pigeon—breaking the national record for the most expensive bird ever sold in Indonesia, according to the ABC. Robby Eka Wijaya bought the male dove, who goes by the name of Jayabaya, from a colleague after watching it race in multiple competitions and noticing that it demonstrated "special features"—including a "stable mood" and a rare consistency for success.
"One race can last over two days and nine rounds. Often birds can only perform for four rounds, but this bird is able to get into the top 20 at every competition," Robby told the ABC. "From what I've observed in the past 10 years, there are only two or three birds that are like him."
A typical pigeon racing event sees the pilots releasing their specially trained birds and seeing how long it takes them to fly back to their lofts over a carefully measured distance. In order to get Jayabaya to return during a race, Robby calls out for him with his "girlfriend": a female pigeon that shares the same cage. This is common practice, says Robby.
He also says he could easily generate profit off Jayabaya, despite the exorbitant price he paid. "There is already someone who is willing to spend 100 million rupiah ($10,200 AUD) for a set of eggs he fathers,” he claims, “but I won't sell it."
In any case, the bird is far from the most expensive in the world. Earlier this year a Chinese buyer paid the equivalent of $1.98 million AUD for a pigeon named Armando: the most expensive of all time. The bird has been described as the Lewis Hamilton of racing pigeons, and holds a variety of records.
The sport also has its fair share of Lance Armstrongs, though. In 2013, the world of pigeon racing was “rocked to its core” by a doping scandal in which six Belgian birds failed tests for banned performance-enhancing drugs. Five birds tested positive for a human anti-inflammatory painkiller, while another tested positive for cocaine. Top officials at a Belgian association of pigeon fanciers—”fancier” being the term for a person who breeds pigeons—said they were shocked at the news.
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