Wanted more dead than alive – crocodiles' safety will remain precarious until laws to protect them are better enforced. In the wild, the predatory reptile can be a menace to villagers for attacking people and valuable livestock. In a store, a crocodile leather handbag on display invokes love at first sight for most fashionistas.
Growing global demand for croc-patterned luxuries has turned commercial crocodile farming into a profitable industry – with more than $200 million in annual international sales of skins alone. The high-end leather goods produced from crocodiles earn ten times that amount in retail sales, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Crocodile Specialist Group.
Illegal Hunting Fueled by Legal Farming, Poor Regulation
As a business, crocodile farming doesn't break any laws. Farms are legally allowed to operate, as well as to sell skins and meat from their stocks. Crocodile poaching, on the other hand, is the illegal hunting and collection of crocodiles from the wild, often to sell to farms for rearing.
This illegal activity is rampant in some places due to poor regulation of the farming industry. It is so widespread in Cambodia, in fact, that experts claim it is the greatest factor preventing the recovery of wild Siamese crocodiles (CR, Crocodylus siamensis).
Further harm to crocodiles results from ignorance about wildlife laws in general. Local fishermen view wild crocodiles as a danger to their economic livelihood and kill them with impunity. Herein lies the weakest link in law enforcement. Despite passage of wildlife protection laws at the national level, communities are mostly unaware that crocodiles are officially protected. In turn the laws have become, for all practical purposes, null and void.
The Status of Crocodiles
But they are in place for good reason. Roughly a quarter of the world’s 23 crocodilian species is either threatened or virtually extinct in the wild. Wild Siamese crocodiles, now almost entirely confined to Cambodia, are thought to number as low as 250. Before new populations of Philippine crocodiles (CR, Crocodylus mindorensis) were discovered on the island of Luzon in 1999, none had been spotted in the wild for years. Under these dire circumstances, every crocodile still has some degree of international and domestic protection in places where they survive.
Fortunately, conservation efforts have been successful in both restoring healthy crocodile populations, such as the Saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), and saving the threatened.
In Cambodia’s Central Cardamom Protected Forest, Conservation International (CI) forged an agreement with villagers to secure key Siamese crocodile habitat and stop using fishing gear that could result in the accidental drowning of crocodiles. In return, the villagers received water buffalo and funding to convert old rice paddies and support a teacher’s salary.
CI and partners, such as Fauna & Flora International, also are working with the Cambodian government to ensure that farming regulations are appropriate and properly implemented.
In the Sierra Madre Mountains in the Philippines, a combination of education, awareness, and economic incentives has tamed long-standing community fears of the Philippine crocodile. Supported in part by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), the Mabuwaya Foundation designed a reward program where contributions into a community fund were made in exchange for each crocodile nest and hatchling protected. With the money, one village district bought a water pump, and many others adopted safer fishing regulations. Moreover, the first Philippine crocodile bred in captivity from a saved hatchling was released into the wild last fall.
“It’s vital to work with local communities to develop regulations from the ground up,” says Mabuwaya Project Manager Jan van der Ploeg.
>> Discover more species impacted by illegal wildlife trade.