By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Feathers are flying after Chinese authorities seized hundreds of Belgian pigeons, including Bolt, the world's most expensive racer, sold for 310,000 euros earlier this year.
Bolt was released last Thursday, together with 400 of his feathered friends, but a further 1,200 racing pigeons are still captive because of a dispute over import duties.
The Belgian ambassador to Beijing is in talks to try to free the rest, the Belgian foreign ministry said on Sunday.
Chinese authorities have said the birds were declared at only nominal values, meaning China would be losing out massively on tax and import duties.
Import duties are 10 percent of the value and, on top of that, a tax of 13 percent is levied, meaning China was due around 75,000 euros for Bolt alone.
Bolt the pigeon, named after the Olympic gold-winning Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, is worth so much in part because he was bred by the celebrated Belgian pigeon fancier Leo Heremans. In 2012, Bolt was the swiftest pigeon in Belgium, where racing rules are especially strict.
He was auctioned in May by the Belgian pigeon traders PIPA, short for Pigeon Paradise, and his release was secured after PIPA's chief executive Nikolaas Gyselbrecht flew to Beijing to negotiate.
The Chinese authorities agreed PIPA was free of any blame and therefore released the 401 birds to their buyers after "a symbolic sum" was paid, Gyselbrecht told Reuters. Under Chinese law, he said the authorities could have exacted a huge payment equal to the birds' total value of more than a million euros.
Beijing authorities could not immediately be reached for comment.
Gyselbrecht said the Belgian and Beijing authorities are trying to find one party to represent the many buyers of all the other birds to simplify negotiations.
So far the pigeons have spent two months in captivity, rather than the standard one month in quarantine.
Bolt is well and living in Beijing with his new owner, but he was fortunate.
"Of the 401 pigeons, four died. Luckily they were not the most expensive. The most expensive that died was worth 2,000 euros," Gyselbrecht said.
Bolt's racing days are done. As a homing pigeon, if he were allowed to fly, he would try to head back to Belgium, so he will only be used for breeding in China, where pigeon racing has surged in popularity.
"He will have a good retirement. He will have a very nice pigeon loft and he will see a lot of female pigeons," Gyselbrecht said. (Editing by Kevin Liffey)