Gamefowl millionaire: Thai women find fortune in cockfights | Agriculture News

Lampang, Thailand – With the shovel of each rooster, wisps of white down feathers soar into the air above the tightly packed spectators. The men watching the fight jumped from their seats to shout opportunities, voices swelled like crickets singing.

One face stands out among the crowd at the cockfight ring in Lampang province in northwestern Thailand.

With the tips of her long hair curled with a flat iron and carefully drawn eyebrows, Phromanas Jumpa looks like an idol or influencer. She’s neither. The 27-year-old, better known as Mod, is one of Thailand’s up-and-coming breeders of game fowl. birds.

Mod watches the fight from the front row, elbows propped up on a plastic-coated soft barrier, cracked and flaky through a history of clenched hands. Her bird is in the ring, and if he wins, there’s some serious money to be made—not gambling per se, but rather selling her champion’s offspring.

Cockfighting has long been a part of Thai culture. Unlike some Southeast Asian countries, betting on the outcome of a fight is legal in licensed venues, and spurs on the bird’s legs are often wrapped in tape to avoid serious injury.

Although stakes are ubiquitous across the country, tournaments usually take place in rural provinces where family incomes are often lower than in Bangkok as well. Mod’s farm, located a few hours drive from Chiang Mai, is surrounded by rice fields. In recent years, the sport has transformed from a farm job to an entrepreneur’s primary source of income.

Mod is streaming a practice fight live on LINE, an instant communication app, to her followers. She doesn’t earn from the competitions themselves, but from the offspring of her winning roosters [Mailee Osten-Tan/Al Jazeera]

In a country with one of the largest wealth gaps in the world, breeding game birds has become a rare gateway to upward social mobility. Mod’s mother was a housekeeper and the majority of the family’s neighbors are farmers.

“In the past, bird breeding had no status and only recently has it been considered a primary profession,” Mod told Al Jazeera.

“Nowadays, bird breeders can have a car, a house and a greater income than people with a regular job.” Her farm is home to over 100 birds. Sales can reach 100,000 Thai baht (just over $2,900) per month — far more than the 300 Thai baht ($8.70) per day Mod previously earned as a gym receptionist.

Reputation is key

A fighting bird can sell for between 3,000 Thai baht ($85) and 50,000 Thai baht ($1,450), but with the right publicity, the sale can become even more lucrative.

“I make about 15 million baht ($435,000) a month in income, and that doesn’t include fighting prize money,” said aptly nicknamed ‘Bird’ S Meesuwan, another guinea fowl breeder.

In January 2022, his champion rooster Trickster won a competition with a prize of 70.2 million Thai baht ($2 million). Success in high-stakes competitions like this may seem like the end goal, but for businessmen like Bird, these are largely PR stunts. Selling the offspring of its winners is where the real money is made.

Like Mod, Bird remembers growing up poor; as a child, he would supplement his family’s income by bringing food to spectators at his local cockfight ring in Ayutthaya. Today he owns one of Asia’s most successful game bird farms.

“Even 15 years ago I was making 3,000 baht a day in sales, but now it’s 300,000…500,000…or even a million a day,” he says, talking about a mass of notifications on LINE, an instant communication app. , of various smartphones for him.

Reputation – built by carefully selecting their fighters’ opponents – and relentless digital marketing are some of the biggest factors determining a farm’s success.

Once a rooster has won its most profitable match, it is unlikely to fight again, allowing the breeder to maintain its profitable reputation. Breeders will take reservations for the offspring of high stakes winners before the chicks are even born.

Bird’s Farm has approximately 250,000 followers on LINE and most chicks are sold to smaller breeders hoping for a genetic reward.

Some cross their native birds with others in the region; Different types of chickens are known to have different fighting styles and strengths.

Like Bird, Mod uses LINE to sell its game birds at home and abroad and ship them in wooden cases to Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia. She sees foreign buyers as an important way to expand her business.

A wide view of the rooster covered enclosure at Bird's Farm with a farmhand in an orange shirt feeding birds housed under domed cages
A farmhand on Bird’s farm feeds the roosters. The small breeders who buy his birds hope for a genetic payoff [Mailee Osten-Tan/Al Jazeera]
Mod sits among the other rooster owners as they wait to pair up their birds for a fight
Mod sits among the other rooster owners as they wait to mate their birds for a fight. It’s rare to see women in cockfights [Mailee Osten-Tan/Al Jazeera]

Breeding as a new financial opportunity has led to a steady change in the demographics of the sport. Cockfights attract not only more low-income opportunists or women like Mod, but also social media-savvy marketers.

In Bangkok, businessman Thongprasert Luengsupapit has been breeding a handful of game fowl for the past two years.

From a room behind his hardware store, he films YouTube videos to advise other small-scale breeders on how to solve problems. The pandemic may have slowed down the gambling side of the industry, but Thongprasert believes financial instability has contributed to a surge in interest in hunting game birds.

Low-income households were most affected by pandemic-related losses, with about 50 percent of agricultural activities and non-farm businesses losing more than half of their income. As of mid-2020, Thongprasert’s YouTube channel has more than 10,000 subscribers.

dirty work

Mod’s business might be on the rise today, but she didn’t always get support. Not least from her mother, who initially feared that the industry would not provide a stable income.

“In the beginning, my mother did not like this profession for me; it is still new in Thai society for women to raise fighting chickens,” she said.

Bird holding Trickster, the winner of a THB 70.2 million fight in January 2022
Bird shows off his award-winning fighter Trickster, the winner of a $2 million fight in January [Mailee Osten-Tan/Al Jazeera]

The blood sport’s reputation, predominately male audience, and the initial cost of starting a business mean it’s still rare for women to break into the industry.

“People generally look down on women who come into a work environment with a lot of men. But people are becoming more and more accepted,” Mod said.

Bussarin Choeybanditthakul, who has been breeding birds for 29 years and turned down a 20 million Thai baht ($57,800) offer in 2018 for one of her Thai pedigree birds, noted that while bird breeding can be a good way for both women and men to earn extra income, they should try it out first.

“There’s a lot of dirty work behind running a farm, and it’s far from a glamorous profession,” she said.

Back at the ring, Mod’s bird has lost an eye.

In a short span of time, Mod’s manager fusses over the rooster like a Muay Thai boxer, wrapping his wings in plastic bags to keep them dry and placing a warm towel over the bird’s head. Another member of her team blows steam from a bunch of scorched lemongrass beneath his chest to help revive it. Their efforts are in vain; on the next round, the bird cringes and runs away three times in a row, losing the fight.

A close-up of one of Bird's roosters, as one member of the team cradles it in his arms and another stitches his eye
A close-up of one of Mod’s roosters, as one member of the team cradles it in his arms and another stitches his eye [Mailee Osten-Tan/Al Jazeera]

Unable to cover her bets in time, Mod also loses 5,000 Thai Baht and a bit of dignity.

As she returns the bird to her truck, she passes promotional posters for other teams depicting women in lingerie posing next to their top-performing roosters.

Tomorrow, Mod’s birds will fight in Chiang Mai – in a bigger stadium and with more commitment.

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