On a moonlit night, 150 miles from the Arabian Sea, a truck screeched to a halt along a monsoon-drenched highway. A farmer emerged from his wooden hut to investigate: Men's hushed voices. Clanking, as clandestine cargo was unloaded. The roar of the engine and the fading throttle of scofflaws as they fled the scene of an unusual wildlife crime. Then the tranquility of the jungle returned, ringing until dawn—a dulcet cacophony of dripping water, insects, and wailing jackals.
Half a mile away, Vajesing Mama awoke in the same house where he had been born more than six decades earlier. During a lifetime in Narukot Village, Mama had watched a veritable Jungle Book strut past his humble house—everything from peacocks to wild boar, panthers, and sloth bears. But he had never seen anything like the gangly gray birds that sashayed through the steamy rain on that August morning.
"Nobody in the village knew what they were," Mama said during a visit late last year. "Everybody came and looked."
Mama was staring at about a dozen immature emus, standing as tall as preteen children. He was baffled. His best guess was that they were some kind of vulture. But he scoffed when asked whether he felt any fear. "We were not scared," he said, speaking in Gujarati, the main language in this Indian state of Gujarat, where jungles, farms, and diamond traders abound. "But everybody stayed back."
Emus, those hardy ratites native to the Australian outback, first made an appearance in India in the 1990s. Since 2006 they have been pawns in what began as a farming fad and turned into a Ponzi scheme; over the years it has spread north from Tamil Nadu to Gujarat and beyond.
"It was a scam," said Dawn William of the Blue Cross of India, a large animal-welfare nonprofit. William investigated the industry in his home state of Tamil Nadu on behalf of the federal government's animal welfare board. "The people who invested their money were farmers."
Emu farming promised to be a hassle-free task. So claimed posters and flyers from Tamil Nadu to Punjab luring anyone eager for an easy new income, which in poverty-riddled India is just about everybody. Irresistible talk of "0 percent mortality rate" and "unlimited horizons" beckoned poultry farmers and ranchers alike—many thousands of them, according to some estimates. They paid tens of thousands of rupees for a pair, up to $300 or more for a single emu, expecting to breed them and sell the progeny for feathers, leather, meat, and oil. Some farmers and farm owners took on a pair or two, while others bought up hundreds of the birds. Patsies invested at the urging of farmers-turned-businessmen and state officials swept up in the hype. Some paid deposits and signed on to care for large emu flocks in exchange for an eventual share of the profits. They discovered soon enough that the birds were not the golden geese they'd been made out to be.
The alleged mastermind of the hustle was M.S. Guru, founder of Susi Emu Farms, which introduced large-scale emu farming to India. Guru was accused by state officials in 2012 of orchestrating a scam and was branded a "goonda" (a conspiratorial goon, basically). Now the bottom has well and truly fallen out of the pyramid, leaving behind broke and indebted farmers and countless flightless birds, the sorriest among them condemned to neglect and even starvation.
Emus are culturally important in their native Australia; one faces a kangaroo on the country's coat of arms. But if kangaroos are conspicuous Down Under—the antipodean equivalent of deer in suburban America—trying to glimpse an emu in the Australian wild can be like searching for a boreal owl in its favorite tree. It's not that emus are rare (the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species' conservation status as being of "least concern"), it's that they're elusive. Emus keep out of cities and towns and tend to avoid people, though they've been known to swipe food from barbecue pits. In their natural environment, their plumage is wickedly well camouflaged, with mottles of brown and gray blending into desiccated Australian landscapes.
Emus were tragically well adapted to serve as the basis of an avian Ponzi scheme, a subcontinental swindle inflicted on India's large agrarian population. They can tolerate hot days, cold nights, and dry conditions, and they will eat just about any type of grain or vegetable. Despite their size, emus are relatively easy to handle. Indian farmers can lead the birds to and from enclosures by grabbing hold of their comically stunted wings, which are normally hidden beneath pendent dreadlocks of pallid feathers. Emu meat is healthfully lean, and research suggests the oil is anti-inflammatory—it's used to treat arthritis, wounds, and high cholesterol. Even the eggs are impressive, each one harboring as much protein as 10 chicken eggs. And who wouldn't want a ratite omelet, family-style?
Indians. That's who wouldn't want a ratite omelet. Not any style. Through much of India, an egg is an ingredient; it's rarely a meal unto itself. Emu eggs can be difficult to crack. The innards have a slightly funky flavor—at least, that's the case for those accustomed to chicken eggs, which includes most people. Indians don't care for the unfamiliar flesh of the emu, either. Nor have they taken to smearing emu oil over their arthritic joints. What's more, because emus are flightless, and have thus been spared the skinny frame and sparse diet needed for a life in the air, they have voracious appetites. A grown emu will eat more than a pound of seeds, plants, and insects every day during the warmer seasons. In India, that's created financial woes for the farmers unable to turn profits on their ravenous stock.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a market for the birds never materialized, neither within India nor for would-be exporters. Some of those who had invested sold their birds to farmers just entering the emu game, freshly enticed by those promises of unlimited horizons. Eventually, however, the music stopped.
In 2012, six years after opening susi emu farms, Guru and his partners walked away from their Tamil Nadu farm, leaving thousands of birds behind. Dawn William was sent to inspect conditions in the aftermath. Newspaper reporters and angry farmers were milling at the fence line when he arrived. Inside, emus had been left to fend for themselves. They were emaciated and thirsty. Some were already dead. "The space was overpopulated," William said.
It is not known how many emus are still out there on farms, hungry, or how many were turned loose in the bush. At its peak in 2012, India's farmed emu population may have hit 2 million, but it's thought that farmers have since slaughtered or abandoned more than half of them. Animal rescue groups nationwide are being asked to take in the forsaken birds. Those groups are asking schools, zoos, and tourist attractions to adopt them.
The Hindu has reported that as many as 20,000 investors may have lost out in the four southern states where the emu boom was concentrated. Of those, 12,000 bought into a buy-back investment program run by Guru's company. "Susi Farms was the first, but they had no knowledge about emu rearing," William said. The company paid for endorsements by Bollywood actors and opened a chain of restaurants that served emu, counterfeiting credibility for its birdbrained scheme. Susi's backers assured farmers vast returns in exchange for rearing the company's emus, but a hefty deposit was required. Sure enough, promised payments started to dry up and key businessmen started disappearing, along with the deposits. "They introduced the emus, saying it was a very profitable business," William added. "But people in India have no idea or knowledge of emus."
The government started buying food for the Susi Farms emus after they were abandoned. But after about a year of publicly funded feasting, it was decided that the birds would be put up for auction during the second half of 2013. Some 10,000 emus from Susi and other failed farms in Tamil Nadu would go under the hammer, with the proceeds going to help compensate aggrieved emu farmers for their losses.
The auction results revealed how paltry demand for the oversized poultry really is. The emus sold to meat traders for about 50 rupees per bird, about 80 cents, the same price a pound of broiler chicken fetches at a market in Tamil Nadu. No wonder farmers are dumping their holdings. Two men were arrested in Jaipur in July after 50 emus died in their vegetable-laden truck, suffocated en route to being dropped in the wild on behalf of an emu farmer looking to get out. That incident came just weeks after 10 emus were dumped along a nearby highway. One farmer told the Times of India he had abandoned 300 emus in the jungle after purchasing 500 of them in 2008.
Some farms continue to operate, despite the madness. The craze hit Gujarat later than it hit the south, and reality has taken longer to set in there. A laborer at a farm in the state said that although his boss had made just a single emu sale during three years of operations, he continues to breed more. A flock of 21 pairs was sold last year, the laborer said—to another farmer paying more than 10,000 rupees per bird.
Forest ranger A.B. Nepali, with a droopy mustache, a holstered pistol, and the patient air of a disciplined soldier, reached Narukot Village a little after day- break. The federal forest department's local commander had ordered him there, no time for breakfast. Whatever exotic creatures were said to be plodding around the village, it was Nepali's job to keep them out of the national wildlife sanctuary less than a mile away.
Nepali gathered his troops, an ad hoc posse of 20 or so forest officers and village laborers. Their equipment: panther cages and 10-foot-by-8-foot nets of yellow mesh.
The burly ranger, the son of a Nepalese army man, had 30 years of experience handling crocodiles, bears, and porcupines. Scars pocked the assembled forest officers, each wound telling its own tale of duty and a beast. The deep scar on one officer's face ran from his neck to his lower lip—a years-old injury courtesy of a sloth bear. Ten years ago a panther jumped Nepali after he pulled it to safety from a well. His colleagues wrangled the weary feline off his back before it could do any serious damage.
But Nepali had no training or experience in capturing emus. The biggest wild birds in Gujarat are peacocks, flamingoes, and pelicans, smaller birds that can escape a forest ranger by air.
"We gathered everybody around with the nets," Nepali said, speaking in Gujarati by the roadside where he led the operation. He says he ordered two or three people to hold each mesh net at its edge, while others shouted and made loud noises to bully the startled emus into the yellow webbing. Some of the youngest birds were small enough to be tackled and grabbed without a net, even by such inexperienced emu wranglers. The birds kicked and pecked at their well-meaning tormentors. A ranger slipped and tore open his arm. By lunch, 28 birds had been trapped and shoved into panther cages and loaded onto the back of a pickup. "It took about four hours," Nepali said.
The caged birds were driven to a fenced children's nature camp on federal forestland, with one of them dying en route. At the campground, the survivors grazed on grass and were fed corn. The fences had been built to keep wild cats away from young campers, but armed watchmen were posted to protect the emus anyway.
The birds grew accustomed to their new guardians, becoming less skittish and packing pounds onto their malnourished frames. They warmed up to the foresters who cared for them, and the foresters liked them. But they couldn't stay. A permanent home was needed.
"We don't like to kill them," said R.G. Prajapati, Nepali's boss, appearing flummoxed after I asked whether he had considered culling the emus. "That was not necessary. Our aim was to not permit them to enter the sanctuary."
Prajapati called Darshan Desai, cofounder of the PRAYAS Team Environment Charitable Trust, an animal welfare non-profit based in the city of Surat, a few hours' drive toward the coast. The group, nearly a decade old, trains and calls on a network of several hundred volunteers who rescue injured animals, house them while they recuperate, and return them to the wild.
But Desai knew the 27 birds he was being asked to accommodate could never be released. He was charged with finding a home that would last them for the rest of their lives. "I don't like the emu farming," Desai said as he recalled the quandary, a frustrated furrow in his brow.
Fortunately, these birds, at least, would get a lucky break. A few years earlier Desai's group had been asked to rescue an injured peacock at the offices of a diamond-trading company in Surat. The diamond dealers own much of a wildlife-rich river island near the Gujarat city of Bharuch that they use as a getaway and for a large organic farm. The peaceful place has since become a favored spot for releasing birds rescued and rehabilitated by PRAYAS volunteers. Desai and the diamond-trading brothers have become friends, united by their love of wildlife.
With Desai as the middleman, the brothers agreed to adopt the 27 surviving emus of Narukot Village. In September the birds were caged up and packed off to their new home. A powerboat carried them to the island during the final leg of the two-hour journey.
Farmers who work at the island are now rearing the emus as if they are pets. The birds live in spacious pens built especially for them. They are well fed, water is plentiful, and they are popular with the staff. They are allowed to run loose once or twice every day, free to explore and snack their way through pesticide-free vegetable fields and mango groves.
Desai is no expert on emus. He looks uncomfortable around them, even a little frightened. But he knows birds, and when he first laid eyes on this flock, he said, "they were weak and in stress, they were definitely hungry." Now, Desai said, the emus are tranquil. "They are eating well, so that's a good sign. They look more relaxed."
These emus have landed on their feet like no others in this sad tale, with a peaceful home far, far away from their native land. After a dangerous journey, this little flock struck it lucky with a 27-in-2 million shot. But Desai fears what will happen the next time emus are dumped in his state, as the wave of failed ventures sweeps north. He has no idea where he would place any more of them.
"I don't think we'll take any more," he said.
If only the nation's farmers hadn't taken so long to reach the same conclusion.