Leonard Ncube in Victoria Falls
PIGEON racing is fast becoming a big event in Victoria Falls with over 2 000 birds from 30 countries registering for this year’s Victoria Falls World Challenge Pigeon Race (VFWCPR).
Now in its fourth year, the VFWCPR has plans to grow and contribute to sports tourism in the country.
Weekly pigeon races have been lined up, with the final event set for Beitbridge.
Last weekend the race started in Lupane and this weekend it will start from Sawmills in Umguza district. The next race will start in Bulawayo followed by Gwanda then Masunga in Beitbridge.
All races will end in Victoria Falls.
Zimbabwe has about 24 fanciers split between Bulawayo and Harare. A fancier is a person who owns a pigeon in a race.
A pigeon could be an ordinary fowl for locals who may not understand pigeon racing, and it may also be hard to believe for an ordinary person that the birds were used as messengers to carry military messages during World War 1 and 2.
Pigeons have an innate homing ability, meaning they will always come home using magnetoreception, making it easy for them to race.
There’re thousands of pigeons for racing at the VFWCPR site in the resort town.
One pigeon trainer Geoff Armand said they decided to bring the sport to Victoria Falls four years ago to attract tourists.
“They race for prestige for their owners. We do this annually and we have six major races every year. A week before the final race we have people coming from all over the world and that’s a boost to tourism because they book for various tour activities. This year we had people booked but they can’t come because of coronavirus,” said Armand.
Last year 130 people came for the race and Armand said they expected the number to rise to 600 this year.
Owners send their three-month old pigeons whose training starts when they reach one year.
Armand said training starts with shorter distances of about five kilometres which is increased gradually until the birds are pros.
“We have a race every week. The birds are collected in cages, which are loaded in a truck and taken to the liberation site (starting point in human marathon races). The cage is opened and they all fly out. They can fly at 100km per hour and can remain in the sky for about eight or nine hours. The good ones always return and can fly straight without stopping,” said Armand.
He said some do not return at all, with non-return rate as big as five percent for bigger events.
The birds are prevented from mating by the tight training schedule and nature of the cage.
VFWCPR general manager Kevin Fry said each bird comes with an identification ring on its leg bearing its name, country and name of owner.
It is then fitted with a second ring with a microchip and both are scanned into the system.
During a race, a machine in the office detects the chip and records speed, time flown and position of the bird on arrival at the finishing cage. The whole race is beamed online.
Only specially bred pigeons are allowed.
“The owner should be registered under a pigeon racing association in one’s country and should have the right breed. This is recognised as one of the big races in the world like in Belgium, USA, South Africa, Thailand, Portugal and Romania. It takes about a month to train the pigeons to go through the finishing cage where their arrival is recorded. Even if ordinary pigeons join along the way, they won’t go through that finishing,” said Fry.
The organisers work with Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, the Veterinary Services department andVictoria Falls Wildlife Trust.