Madagascan cock fighters claw their way to glory

2017-03-09 21:33

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Antananarivo - Two competing roosters rear up to face each other in the heart of a rowdy Madagascan arena before bursting forward in attack, wings outstretched and claws set to strike.

Feathers are shredded, blood is drawn and the birds squawk loudly as the combat intensifies and the crowd cheers wildly.

A series of violent blows forces one of the avian contenders to retreat, drawing angry jeers from hundreds of spectators.

Despite grinding poverty in the large Indian Ocean island nation, cockfighting draws huge crowds and attracts large sums of gambling cash.

Fights only end if two hours pass without a clear victor, if one of the cocks loses both eyes, if one refuses to fight, or one of them dies. Deaths are rare but not unheard of.

The Ambohimangakely arena - with tiered seating for about 400 people - in the capital Antananarivo is engulfed by a deafening roar on match days, such as a recent tournament.

Cock breeders travelled from around Madagascar to show off their finest fighters at the high-profile event, where the rush to bet reaches fever pitch.

Spectators exchanged bundles of notes in the stands as the action unfolded in the sandy, fenced-off pit below.

In just one contest, locals said more than $3 870 changed hands - a small fortune in a nation where the average monthly salary is just $47.64.

"Every team bets something on their cocks before the fight, then the spectators bet too. They are enormous amounts, but here it's a passion," said Rija, one of the breeders taking part in the competition.

"People love it, it's like going to a casino."

 'More popular than football' 

While good-natured chaos reigns in the stands, the fighting is strictly controlled by a referee armed with a whistle.

During each break, the cock breeders take their bloodied beasts to a corner of the ring to delicately swab their injuries with small moist sponges.

While hugely popular in Asia, cockfighting is rare in Africa. But in Madagascar it is an ancestral tradition that dates back 700 years and was brought to the country by Asian migrants.

Long enjoyed by many on the island, which lies about 400km east of mainland Africa, cockfighting has come to be seen almost as a national pastime in recent years.

While it is illegal in the US, Britain and much of Europe, there is no law against cockfighting in Madagascar and criticism of it is virtually non-existent there.

"Here it is a tradition before it is a competition. It's even more popular than football," said tournament organiser Setra Rabarinandrianina.

Far from the raucous racket of the arena, 25-year-old trainer Ravoavy Lovathina was attending to Pierrot, one of his 30 birds.

While the birds require no training to fight - it is instinctive - their owners care for them attentively to ensure they are in excellent condition for their bouts.

Lovathina used a damp cloth to bathe Pierrot before feeding slices of banana to Neymar, Legolas and Flash - three of his finest fighters.

"We prepare the cocks for competition. We have to feed them, care for them physically," he said.

"Looking after the cocks help us to relax, it is a passion. Even to see them growing makes you happy."

But despite a winning streak worthy of a champion - 35 victories and one defeat for his birds - Lovathina, an economics student, does not earn a living from cockfighting.

Winnings are usually shared among several breeders and barely cover the costs of vaccines, food and the time needed for preparation.

The prices for the best birds, a Thai breed, can be high: a single egg can cost up to $65 - equivalent to around a month-and-a-half's salary on average.

A "battle-ready" cock can sell for in excess of $5 500.

 'Like boxers' 

Back at Ambohimangakely, the fighting rages on.

One of the cocks was forced to undergo improvised surgery after suffering a wound under its eye.

Its owner used a Swiss army knife to cut off a stray flap of skin before returning the animal to the fight.

Trainers wearing T-shirts hold their roosters, some still bearing wounds from previous encounters, before letting them loose in a ring surrounded by advertising hoardings with barriers holding back boisterous supporters.

Those involved in cockfighting deny that it is a form of animal cruelty and insist that it is a sport like any other.

"These cocks are like boxers and they are very well kept before they fight. Anyway, they have a fighting instinct," said Lovathina.

According to animal protection organisation, the Humane Society of the United States, roosters rarely hurt each other badly when left alone. In cockfights, however, they suffer injuries like punctured lungs, broken bones and pierced eyes.

Organiser Rabarinandrianina joked that Brigitte Bardot, the French actress who founded an animal rights NGO, would not be welcome at the tournament.

"Cockfighting was happening long before human civilisation which (now) wants to ban all of this. It's no more bloody than bullfighting," he said.

Read more on:    madagascar  |  southern africa

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