The vast steppe of Kazakhstan is the traditional stomping ground of galumphing camels and galloping horses. Now, however, an unexpected rival has appeared on the scene: the African ostrich.
On a small farm in the shadow of snow-capped mountains outside Kazakhstan’s commercial capital of Almaty, septuagenarian Yevgeniy Chaykovskiy lovingly tends his brood of flightless bipeds.
Chaykovskiy is a man with a vision: after unexpectedly encountering his first ostrich in the 1970s as a member of a delegation of Soviet scientists visiting Belgium, he developed a keen interest in these gangling birds.
Back then the Soviet scientists’ cultural program included a visit to an ostrich farm, where he learned of the health benefits of ostrich meat and “the idea emerged that it wouldn’t be a bad thing to include this healthy meat in the Kazakhstani diet.”
It took three decades for his dream to come true, but in 2001 he finally brought the first batch of ostrich chicks to Kazakhstan. He set up a farm named Fauna outside Almaty, east along the highway to China, and proved – as he puts it – that “the African ostrich can survive and develop in the climatic and biological conditions of Kazakhstan.”
These birds that originated on the plains of Africa are now thriving on the Central Asian steppes, where perhaps the environment is not so strange for them: the ostrich’s scientific name is Struthio camelus, loosely translated as ‘winged camel’ and a reference to their dry habitats.
As a farmhand brings feed, the ostriches crowd inquisitively up to the fence, shaking their feathers and pecking eagerly at the food as their sprightly, white-haired owner, Chaykovskiy, looks on fondly.
He came late to ostrich farming – 40 years ago, when he spied his first ostrich in Belgium, he was a nuclear physicist, sent from Moscow to the Soviet Union’s nuclear testing hotbed at Semipalatinsk in northeastern Kazakhstan, where he helped test atomic rocket engines.
He was an acclaimed nuclear physicist, rising to become mayor of the closed town of Semipalatinsk-21 (the code name for the test site). After the closure of the testing ground in 1991, when the country gained independence, Chaykovskiy worked to develop sovereign Kazakhstan’s civil nuclear industry (which is still based in the town, now called Kurchatov).
But the lure of the ostrich remained enticing, and in 2001 Chaykovskiy gave up his job and went seeking the Struthio camelus in Holland.
He adopted a total-immersion technique to learn a business that would be very different from nuclear physics. “When I decided to bring ostrich chicks here, I spent two weeks in Holland [on an ostrich farm],” Chaykovskiy explains. “I lived in the building where the ostriches lived – I asked them to put a bed in there with the ostriches and I watched everything they did and wrote it down. I learned everything.”
Chaykovskiy then imported 440 ostrich chicks in incubators into Kazakhstan and started rearing his brood.
The birds adapted quickly to life on the steppe in southeastern Kazakhstan: in the warm summers they live outside day and night, and even in the cold winters they roam outside in the snow in the daytime, though at night they must be housed indoors to ward off the chill.
Out of his initial brood of 440 chicks, Chaykovskiy selected 70 to rear a main flock – a lengthy process, since the male takes five years to mature and the female reaches the age of three before she starts laying eggs.
The enormous eggs are sold to tourists visiting the farm, which attracts up to 900 callers a day in summer, many on day trips from Almaty. The eggs retail for 3,500-5,000 tenge ($23-33) and can make a gigantic omelet feeding 13 people.
The farm’s core business is breeding: it sells ostrich chicks in small batches for $120 apiece to small farmers who rear them and sell the meat retail to individual aficionados or wholesale to the hospitality industry in Kazakhstan’s largest cities, Almaty and Astana, where discerning customers in glitzy restaurants have developed a taste for it. “For some people it’s business, for others it’s a means to look after their health through the health-giving properties of ostrich meat,” Chaykovskiy says.
The meat retails for around 3,500 tenge ($23) per kilo, around three times the going rate for beef – which sells for around 1,200 tenge ($8) per kilo in Almaty stores – and over double the price of horsemeat, a traditional favorite in Kazakhstan costing about 1,500 tenge ($10) a kilo.
The Kazakh diet is traditionally so carnivorous that a popular joke has it that Kazakhs are the second biggest meat eaters in the world – after wolves. People can benefit from a switch to ostrich meat, says Chaykovskiy: it is high in protein and iron but lower in cholesterol and fat than other meats.
The ostrich business is booming: the farm has waiting lists for chicks three years ahead and is looking to expand, increasing the size of the flock and branching out beyond breeding into meat processing and sales.
For that a massive cash injection is needed, so Chaykovskiy is about to sell the business to a wealthy Almaty businessman. He will remain involved to oversee the expansion of his labor of love.
Back in the ostrich pen, Chaykovskiy points to a male bird that has started mating with a female. “Look at his rubbery neck, his rubbery wings!” exclaims the nuclear physicist-turned-ostrich farmer. “It’s love – he’s making baby ostriches!”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.