TANGDHE SAYEDAN  - Fighting can be a way of life in parts of Taliban-scourged Pakistan, but on the farms it is more likely to be dogs who are in training for their own violent and bloody battles.

Officially banned by the government and condemned as cruel by animal rights groups, thousands of wealthy farmers, landowners and businessmen use the quiet winter months to indulge a passion for bloody bulldog fights.

“I love Moti just like my kids. He’s a source of pride,” crowed a jubilant Malik Tassaduq Hussain after his dog won a fight in Tangdhe Sayedan, a village in Punjab province, 110 kilometres east of Islamabad.

To the din of drum beats and flutes, men hoisted Moti onto their shoulders, danced through the crowds and showered the animal with banknotes after thousands watched him bite and tear his way to victory on a secluded plateau. In villages such as these, fights between bulldogs, known as “booly” in Punjabi, provide one of the few forms of entertainment while crops grow.

The rules are brutally simple: the dogs fight until one bleeds to death, runs off, or until the owner takes pity and withdraws the animal from battle, handing the opponent victory.

Winning owners can get small prizes such as trophies, cell phones, or televisions while some organizers give prize money ranging from Rs5,000 to Rs100,000, depending on what the organizers can afford.

“We organise these festivals because we love dog fights. Every organiser chooses his own or associates’ land in the village to stage these fights. It’s a hobby of the powerful,” said Abdul Ghaffar, a local organiser.

A champion like Moti costs hundreds of dollars a month in food and requires extensive training before the annual fighting season, which runs from late September to late March.

Hussain explains Moti’s complicated, and expensive diet.

“We give him two litres of milk, one kilogram of meat, butter and a supplement of an apple every day. It costs us Rs50,000 every month,” said the 59-year-old farmer. “Half my family is settled in Britain and my brother, who is a lawyer over there, gives me money to feed the dog and keep our family’s honour.”

Moti is two years old but spent a year training for his first fight, running behind a motorcycle for more than 20 kilometres a day, Hussain said.

Those who win, bring honour and pride to the owners. But it’s a different story for those who lose. “Please don’t ask me anything. I am disturbed. My dog lost,” said one young man in his early twenties. “I have no courage to speak, it is shame,” he added, rubbing salt into his dog’s wounds to stop them becoming infected. As with bans on terror groups that allow organisations to rename themselves and carry on largely unchecked, Pakistan does little to enforce the prohibition on dog fights and the industry they attract.

Traders set up tea and snack stalls around the field. There are organised parking contracts and every fight is filmed. Videos of major fights go on sale.

There is an unwritten calendar of meets, and every fan, dog owner and stall holder knows when and where to ship up within 200 kilometres. “I go to every fight and set up my stall everywhere. I earn around Rs3,000 a day which is much more than what I get from my shop,” Ishtiaq Ahmed, 45, told AFP.

Police say they do raid fights and arrest culprits but Punjab police spokeswoman Nabeela Ghazanfar concedes that most get bail.

The maximum penalty - six months in jail and a fine equivalent to $11 - is hardly prohibitive and activists want the government to do more to outlaw dog fights, which they say are “wrong” and “cruel”.

“Many dogs die due to wounds after the fights. Fighting dogs develop skin diseases and many of their wounds do not heal,” said Nasim Ahmad, secretary in Pakistan for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals.

Zulfiqar Otho, a vet who volunteers for the Pakistan Animal Welfare Society, told AFP that owners of losing dogs sometimes shoot them after fights and that on average, one dog dies per festival.

“They are rich businessmen, feudal lords, members of the parliament and other bigwigs of society. They influence police through their stature and money... Police can’t move against the will of these people,” he told AFP.

But the fans are unperturbed.

“God created dogs to fight and bite,” said farmer Chaudhry Javed. “Even if we don’t arrange this, they’ll fight each other,” he added.