Cambodia’s crocodile farms are hoping to progress from exporting hatchlings to full skins, if conservation standards can be met
Tucked behind a nondescript rice mill in Siem Reap is a crocodile farm with more than 1,000 of the reptilians lazily basking in the sun. The crocodiles, used for breeding purposes only, crowd around six large pools of water, just one part of a network of crocodile farms in Cambodia, which is increasingly eyeing the global leather market.
Cambodia has been breeding crocodiles since the early 1990s. While the farms were small and few then, the sector has grown to nearly 1,000 farms with 500,000 crocodile hatchlings.
Farmers would previously primarily sell hatchlings to Thailand and Vietnam, but have been encouraged by the government since 2005 to raise the crocodiles for up to three years so their skins can develop and be made into shoes, bags and other products.
Sen Rith, deputy president of the Association of Cambodian Crocodile Farm Development to Siem Reap and owner of the aforementioned farm, said skins could sell for around $7 to $8 per centimetre, measured across the belly of the croc, whereas hatchlings had lower margins.
“The raw material cost of raising a hatchling is $25. We sell them for $26 to $28 in good condition or sometimes even less,” said Rith.
To move away from low-margin sales, the sector is exploring exporting to high-end markets like the European Union.
In April, the tannery France Croco – which is owned by the same European multinational, Kering, that owns Gucci, Balenciaga, and Alexander McQueen – announced it was looking at Cambodia as a potential supplier for a pilot project of 1,000 adult croc skins.
While the project is still in the initial stages with no confirmation on when the skins will be exported, Jean-François Cautain, EU ambassador to Cambodia, said that while most crocodile products imported by the economic bloc are from US and African farms, Southeast Asia was now on the radar as well.
“Southeast Asian-farmed Siamese crocodile products only represent a marginal proportion of these imports, around 1 per cent if our sources are correct,” Cautain said.
“We do however see a potential for a substantial development of these exports for Cambodia.”
Cautain added that Cambodia’s aspirations to export to the EU would hinge on the Kingdom’s compliance with “strict environmental and quality standards”, as well as following the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
CITES is an inter-governmental agreement to ensure that the trade of wild animals and plants does not affect their survival in the wild.
Speaking to the Post in April, Heng Sovannara, chief of the Crocodile Development Division at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said farms keen on exporting croc skins would first have to approach the ministry to obtain a CITES licence.
“Before skins can be exported, the exporters have to ask permission from the ministry and then we apply for a license with CITES for cross-border export,” he said.
Rith said that currently, 16 farms had applied for a CITES licence, while only six of them had obtained approval to export skins so far.
Conforming to CITES and increasing conservation efforts ensures that Siamese crocodiles, the only species found in Cambodia, will be removed from the Appendix I category – which restricts exports to the US – and bring them to Appendix II, widening export opportunities.
“You can only move based on your conservation record,” Rith said.
The government and farmers have been working on limiting the sale of hatchlings abroad, said Rith, in order to increase the number of baby crocodiles that can be released into the wild.
Global fashion houses have made wildlife conservation integral to their buying strategies and need assurances that farmed animals have not been taken from the wild, according to Charlie Manolis, who has worked with Cambodian crocodile farmers since 2005 as head scientist at Wildlife Management International.
“This is an element coming into play a lot more nowadays,” Manolis said, adding that if conservancy efforts were successful, the sector could possibly diversify into tanneries and manufacturing in the future.
Exporting to the EU will be a slow process given their high quality requirements, Rith said, so farms currently rely on local demand for skins and meat, while other potential buyers eye the Kingdom’s croc skins as well.
“Many countries in Asia want skins, like Korea, Japan, Vietnam, China, and Singapore. There is demand but we need to improve on our quality.”
Noun Vin, a 28-year-old salesperson at a store selling crocodile products near Siem Reap’s Old Market, said both local and international tourists are interested in buying crocodile leather wallets, bags and belts ranging from $20 to $800, although sales were seasonal.
“During the peak season we have around 30 customers buying products every day, but only five during the low season,” Vin said.
Additional reporting by Thik Kaliyann