When someone came up with the idea of breeding emus in southern India it sounded like a sure-fire way to prosperity. The meat could be sold to restaurants, the hide turned into leather.
And for many years the scheme paid dividends as more and investors bought into the idea and other breeders joined in the emu bonanza. Local movie stars were recruited to publicise the project.
But in recent days, what police said was essentially a large Ponzi scheme has collapsed, leaving up to 20,000 fuming investors fighting to recover their money and government officials struggling to feed anywhere between 40,000-100,000 unwanted emus. The men who had promised the big bucks have reportedly fled with the cash.
“Indian farmers were offered false promises of great financial returns for raising emus and thousands of them succumbed to temptation and got scammed,” said Bhuvaneshwari Gupta, of the animal rights group Peta India. “There isn’t a demand for emu meat or eggs in India, people are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with emu meat.”
While investigations are taking place in four southern states, the epicentre of the emu craze was in the Erode district of Tamil Nadu where the flightless birds were first raised in 2006. Reports suggest that for several years investors saw a decent return on their money.
But police say the returns were based on money coming in from other investors, rather than a genuine profit, and that the emu farms failed to even establish facilities for killing the birds or processing their meat and hide.
Police say efforts are underway to seize the assets of five firms that operated in the town of Perundurai, the most notorious of which appears have been Susi Emu Farms, which was founded by MS Guru. Mr Guru is among those missing. A further 23 firms are under the watch of the Tamil Nadu police.
“After framing charges against the five major firms, we will start accepting complaints against smaller firms,” said PR Venmathi, a superintendent with the force’s economic offences wing. She added: “All the promoters have gone underground and their birds have been abandoned.’’
The scam has left in its wake thousands of furious farmers and other investors who have descended on Perundurai. While all claim to have been unknowingly duped, some commentators have suggested that at least some must have realised they were taking part in an illegal and risky venture.
Among those who said he had no idea that it was not what it appeared was P Subrahmani, from Omallaur in the west of the state. He invested 1.5m rupees (£17,000) into the scheme and even found other investors. “The Susi Emu Farms has taken me for a ride, saying it was a very simple business,” he told The Independent. “They promised to supply chicks and the fodder. The shed was built on my premises. They claimed it was free though I had to pay a huge amount in the form of interest free security deposit.”
Another investor, R Arumugam, who comes from near the town of Salem, claimed he was also cheated by Susi Emu Farms. Mr Arumugam, who is disabled, said he invested 600,000 rupees. “When they claimed it was risk-free and involved no hard work, I felt this business was tailor-made for me due to my handicap,” he added.
Among the pressing problems is what to do with all the emus. For a number of days many birds were left untended and had started to fight and peck each other. Now the authorities have moved in, vowing to feed them. Their ultimate fate remains unclear. The Erode magistrate VK Shanmugham said vets were regularly checking the birds. “We are getting the feed from the suppliers and distributing it to the birds,” he said.
Meanwhile, the animal rights activists have written to the country’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, calling for emu farming to be banned and pointing out that it has failed in other countries, not just India. Ms Gupta, of Peta India, said they also reminded Mr Singh “of our earlier request for the government to promote vegan eating – not meat production - to encourage the public to help the environment, animals and their own health.”