|Managing Tropical Animal Resources - Crocodiles as a Resource for the Tropics |
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Benefits of Crocodile Farming
Crocodile farming seems to be singularly appropriate for rural, isolated, lowland communities in the tropics. The land there is often unsuitable for conventional agriculture, and the people lead a tenuous existence or drift to the cities looking for work. In such areas, there are few opportunities for people to earn cash without drastic and expensive modifications to the environment.
Crocodile farming has many advantages over hunting the animal in the wild. For instance, crocodiles farms can:
· Permit government monitoring of the crocodile industry. (Hunters are more difficult to regulate since they work in remote areas, often undetected and crossing borders at will.)
· Yield a regular harvest of a specific number of animals of a selected size.
· Produce a standardized, premium product that better serves the needs of the international hide industry, making skins poached from the wild less desirable. (They may provide, for instance, a standard first grade 1-1.5 m long hide rather than hides of mixed size and quality.)
· Reduce the wasteful losses of hides from improper handling, the fate of a high proportion of skins now brought in from the wild.(*In remote areas, salt may become scarce late in the season as it is used for hides. This often results in insufficient salt being used when the supply runs out and hides subsequently rot or "slip". In some isolated areas, as much as 25 percent of the hides are lost or downgraded because of improper curing for lack of salt. However, skins produced on farms, especially near urban areas or large villages, are usually properly salted; if salt becomes scarce, killing of the animals can be delayed)
· Educate the public about crocodile ecology and the animal's importance to the habitat and the local economy.
· Provide sites for scientific studies on crocodilians. Studies conducted on alligators at the Rockefeller Refuge in Louisiana, USA, for example, have provided reproductive, nutritional, and growth data directed specifically towards developing efficient farming techniques.
For some farms the earnings from hides, meat, and by-products may be supplemented by tourism (through gate admissions and the sale of curios), as well as by selling eggs and young to other farms for breeding stock.
A long-term program of wise utilization of crocodiles can benefit governments by providing revenue from hides, curios, craftwork, and manufactured articles, as well as from export duties. Furthermore, in their natural state in parks and preserves, crocodiles are an important tourist attraction.
In an effort to preserve crocodile habitats, the Papua New Guinea program has encouraged the collection of eggs or young from the wild and has discouraged the breeding of crocodiles in captivity. This is because a reliance on the wild creates economic incentives to conserve crocodile habitats; if the habitats are drained for human settlement or conventional agriculture the farmers lose the source of their stock.
Contrary to popular impression, preliminary observations indicate that crocodiles benefit commercial fisheries. The animals are important links in the ecosystems of rivers and lakes and are often the largest inhabitants of the freshwater wetlands. Their movements inhibit the growth of aquatic plants in the waterways, and, in areas with prolonged dry seasons, some species maintain residual waterholes that benefit small aquatic organisms that would otherwise perish. In estuaries and lakes, crocodiles enrich the nutrient content of the water by converting terrestrial prey into feces that in turn feed invertebrates and fish.
Where crocodiles have been eliminated, reductions in the tonnage of fish caught for human consumption can usually be demonstrated. For example, in Brazil, Kenya, and India, a decline in the fishermen's catch has paralleled the decline in crocodiles.
Limitations of Crocodile Farming
Governments and individuals seeking rapid returns on investments should realize that a crocodile farming industry is not a get-rich-quick scheme. To build a stable national industry may require 10 years and an investment of at least $500,000 before it is biologically and economically successful.
Nevertheless, an organized industry is vital. A village crocodile-rearing pond is only profitable if there is someone to buy, grade, package, and ship the product with all its documentation. Services will be needed at all levels to advise on disease control, nutrition, skinning, and preserving the hides. In many parts of the world crocodile farms have been financial and conservation failures not just because of poor husbandry management, but also because of fiscal shortsightedness.
Selection of a suitable farm site is basic to the economics of the entire operation. Farms demand a steady supply of meat or fish to feed the crocodiles, and are most successful when located near a reliable source of inexpensive food. Some farms take advantage of offal from nearby chicken or cattle abattoirs; others use the fish by-catch from shrimping operations. In the absence of an inexpensive animal protein feed, the farm will have to raise its own food (tilapia is frequently used) or harvest it from the wild, both of which can be expensive.
Crocodile farms also require a steady year-round supply of clean water for the holding ponds and tanks. If this cannot be supplied by gravity flow from nearby sources, it must be pumped from wells or from nearby lakes or ponds. This, too, is likely to be expensive.
Despite the general hardiness of crocodiles, the farms must have access to veterinary care. Most disease problems stem from poor sanitation, low water temperatures, and poor diet, all of which can be easily corrected. But with large numbers of animals crowded together, disease problems, if not quickly diagnosed and treated, can wipe out the young captive animals in epidemic proportions.
Capturing and transporting large crocodilians is dangerous and difficult. Dealing with a large captive population of crocodiles of different age groups and sizes requires a great deal of experience.
Although crocodilians are common in zoos, successful breeding of these reptiles in captivity is so far a rare and remarkable event. However, researchers are now coming to understand the behavioral requirements for success. For instance, gravid females must have access to appropriate nesting sites, males must have ample space when they are penned in with other males, and juveniles and hatchlings must be separated from their parents and housed by size and feeding preferences. That prolific breeding can be achieved, however, is illustrated by the Samutprakan crocodile farm near Bangkok, Thailand, which reportedly has reared tens of thousands of its own animals and now aims for a population of 100,000 crocodiles by 1987.
The worldwide shortage of crocodile leather is becoming more acute each year, and it will be many years before any output from farms can significantly reduce pressure on wild populations. Thus, farming should be only one aspect of an overall conservation program that includes total protection of some populations in national parks and sanctuaries. In addition, the conservation of natural wetlands is an important part of overall economic planning. If wetlands are lost, many wild species in addition to crocodiles will be affected.
In Australia, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, many crocodilian populations are poorly protected because governments lack the manpower or the will to enforce conservation laws rigorously, especially in the remote areas where the last remaining crocodiles reside. Because most wildlife departments in the tropics are short staffed and have vast areas to police, their efforts at wildlife protection are frequently ineffective. Moreover, some countries have been slow to introduce protective legislation for an animal that does not engender public sympathy.
Papua New Guinea's program offers one of the best hopes for saving all endangered crocodiles, alligators, caimans, and gavials. The methods developed there serve as a model for other nations. By providing an alternative, Papua New Guinea gives villagers the incentive to protect wild crocodiles that are breeding nearby so as to assure themselves of future supplies. The people themselves become the conservators of the local animals and habitats. In turn, watersheds, soils, and conventional agricultural development (including natural and forest products) can all benefit. The habitat is also preserved for many other wildlife species that share it, and genetic diversity can be maintained. Conversely, without a special incentive to conserve them, all these resources are normally degraded as a region develops.