What skins should we tan? A response concerning ostrich leather

Comment: Klein Karoo International
Published:  31 October, 2017

A comment from Sarie de Wet, Account Manager, Klein Karoo a South Africa based processor of ostrich. The article is in response to Mike Redwood’s comment published on this website on October 12. Click here to read the original article. 

Dear Dr Redwood

I am a fan of your comment articles on the International Leather Maker (ILM) website. After reading the article titled: “What skins should we tan”, I thought I would share with you some information regarding the ostrich industry.

I am one of the Marketing Team Members working for the world’s largest ostrich leather producer located in Oudtshoorn, South Africa; Klein Karoo International.  We produce 60% of all ostrich products being exported from South Africa, and were the first producers of ostrich leather in the early 1970s. 

The ostrich industry started around the feather business from wild ostriches in 1826, then later developed into a leather market, with meat being a by-product and eventually entered the meat markets of the world. Today, ostrich is farmed in many countries around the world, but South Africa remains the most successful in terms of quality of the leather. Klein Karoo is the preferred supplier of many high-end international brands.

Nowadays, in order to survive financially, you must farm ostrich for all three of the products; leather, meat and feathers. After being closed for five years for fresh meat exports due to Avian Influenza (AI), the market reopened for about a year before being closed again with another recent outbreak of the disease in the South African poultry industry. Unfortunately, with continued outbreaks of AI, we see that the ostrich industry is shrinking with less farmers committing into taking livestock due to the gamble of fresh meat export opening and closing overnight. A farmer receives more than double the price for fresh export meat in comparison with locally sold meat. Klein Karoo developed a pre-grilled, pre-cooked product which, eventually, was well received by the UK and some European markets, but after the re-opening of fresh meat again, we faced big challenges with farmers who prefer exporting fresh meat, which we all know is not sustainable, as opposed to a lower income for the pre-grilled, pre-cooked meat, due to costs and weight loss after being processed. Luckily, Klein Karoo maintained these markets during the period of open fresh meat exports, hence, placing ourselves in a better position compared to our fellow ostrich producers in South Africa. But even with that, we need to get approximately $45 more on average per ostrich for its skin and feathers to make ostrich farming viable.    

In the case of leather, the approach to most species is that it is either a by-product (cattle, sheep and pigs), or the impression is that in the case of exotics, the animal is exclusively bred for its skin. The income distribution for ostrich is roughly 40% leather, 40% meat and 20% feathers. This represents probably the most balanced distribution of value generation and, if the conversion of natural resources into commercial value is considered, there is probably no other agricultural business model that matches ostrich farming. Roughly 450kg of Alfalpha (at whatever the price of the day), converts into ZAR6,000 (US$424) of commercial value per ostrich.

PETA has directly attacked both Klein Karoo, and one of our major clients, about two years ago for processing and using ostrich leather; just as they previously did with the python and crocodile industry. Ostrich is referred to as an exotic leather, but is not CITES regulated. We have recently discussed if it would not be better for the ostrich industry not to be referred to as an exotic leather. In fact, all our ostriches come from commercially registered farms and, therefore, are the same as cows, pigs and sheep commercial farms. Producing a luxury product with the buying habits of millennials and ‘generation z’ is becoming more and more of a challenge. 

Kind regards,

Sarie de Wet, Account Manager, Klein Karoo

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