Dakar (AFP): Oumar Johnson ducks to enter his cramped dovecote, built atop a city apartment block, and snatches his favourite pigeon from dozens of birds fluttering and cooing around him.

"This pigeon is called Super King," he says, holding the animal proudly aloft.

The pedigree bird is the most expensive pigeon in Senegal, which Johnson bought at auction to inject a competitive edge into the country's fledgeling pigeon-racing scene.

The 30-year-old scientist is one of a small but growing number of Senegalese men who have fallen for the charms of breeding and racing homers, some to the point of obsession.

Super King cost the equivalent of about 650 euros ($813), a hefty price in a country where the minimum wage is some 90 euros a month.

"We have a sort of addiction to this animal, the homing pigeon," says Johnson, the president of the Senegalese federation of pigeon fanciers. "It's another way of life."

The West African nation now boasts some 350 enthusiasts, many of whom ignore protests from family and loved ones and devote most of their free time, and sizeable sums of money, to their pigeons.

Most, like Johnson, keep their lovingly tended birds in wooden dovecotes on rooftops in dense urban areas.

From his roof in a suburb of the capital Dakar, 40-year-old shopkeeper Moustapha Gueye releases scores of pigeons from their acrid-smelling loft. They rush into the air and are quickly out of sight.

"They are athletes so they need to train," he says, explaining that the pursuit demands both time and brainpower.

He not only feeds and exercises the pigeons each morning, but he also handles veterinary care and develops cross-breeds suitable for flying in hot weather.

"It's something that can't be explained," Gueye says, smiling as he describes his feelings when his pigeons return after a long race.

 

 'Like a drug' 

Senegal's racing season, featuring nation-spanning contests, began in November after the end of the rains.

In late October, dozens of mostly young men brought crates of homers to a suburban Dakar rooftop to register them for a pre-season test race -- one of several that took place that weekend.

Volunteers registered and tagged the birds in a lively atmosphere, joking and chatting until well after midnight.

Then, so-called convoyeurs drove the tagged pigeons to the city of Diourbel, about 160 kilometres (100 miles) east of Dakar, to be released early the next morning.

"It's like a drug," says Johnson, who attended the pre-race registration, explaining the appeal of the sport.

The next day, race participant Mamadou Diallo is standing on his Dakar rooftop with several friends, scanning the crystal-blue skies for his pigeons.

The 33-year-old electrical engineer, a self-professed pigeon fanatic, is pacing back and forth in anticipation.

Suddenly a shout goes up. Pigeons on the horizon. Diallo, in excitement, skits around the rooftop blowing a whistle and rattling a plastic bottle to lure the pigeons back into their dovecote.

He carefully notes their arrival times, which the race organisers will later compare with other pigeons that raced from Diourbel.

Afterwards, a more relaxed Diallo describes pigeons as his passion but jokes that his wife chastises him for wasting his time. On top of work and family obligations, he frets about his animals' welfare.

"It's normal because... I put them in a cage, I am responsible for them."

 

 'Greatest pigeon nation' 

Senegalese pigeon-racing enthusiasts are keen to turn others on to the sport, and some hope to ultimately turn professional.

It has already grown apace. About 15 people practised the sport in 2010, according to Diallo, compared with more than 300 today. Teenagers are also increasingly interested.

"It is my one and only dream to bring pigeon-racing to the (rooftops)," Diallo says, adding that he wants his children to get involved too.

He worries that the time commitment and costliness of keeping pigeons could distract youngsters from their studies, however.

Johnson, the pigeon-fanciers' president, shares his concerns, noting that some people take their dedication too far.

"When you're too busy with pigeons, things risk going badly," he says, adding that the federation is considering less time-consuming races for youngsters.

Young people are nonetheless the future of the sport, Johnson says, adding that their devotion will make Senegal "one of the greatest pigeon-racing nations" one day.

"In Europe, you have to motivate young people to get involved," he says. "Here, young people are rushing into it."