The world of Belgian homing pigeons is in a flap over fears that Chinese criminal gangs are bumping off their prized racers, after a gruesome discovery in the northern town of Antwerp.
Last week a passerby spotted two men of Asian appearance dumping rubbish bags in a wood in Mol, near the Dutch border.
The two men were driving a car with French plates, according to the witness, who took some photos at the scene thinking they were tipping refuse at a natural beauty spot, Belgian media reported.
However the sacks were found to contain the bodies of 14 racing pigeons.
All the birds had one foot cut off and therefore lost their identification tags.
The birds were believed to have gone missing the same day from a well-known local pigeon breeder.
The impressive reputation of competition pigeons raised in Belgium has long spread beyond the kingdom's borders.
The top-performing birds can change hands for hundreds of euros and sometimes much more.
The pigeons have even drawn the attentions of Chinese criminal gangs, according to the Royal Belgian Federation of Pigeon Fanciers, which has already recorded ten robberies this year.
Rather than attempting to smuggle their prey abroad, the birdnappers merely kill their victims and cut off the identifying rings.
"That's much more simple. All they have to is fit the stolen identification rings in China onto a bird worth a fraction of the value, which they then pass off as an ace racer," fanciers' association president Pierre De Rijst told the Het Laatste Nieuws daily.
The two men photographed in Mol, who turned out to be Chinese nationals, presented themselves to Belgian police on Saturday.
They explained that they were in Belgium on business "in the world of pigeon fanciers".
According to the prosecutors office, they supplied proof of purchase of pigeons in Belgium and were therefore allowed to leave freely.
The Belgian federation now recommends that its 33,000 members take out insurance against theft and place surveillance cameras in their coops.
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