Lambasted in the British tabloid press last week for allowing tourists to throw live chickens and ducks to his crocodiles, Siem Reap Crocodile Farm manager Vincent Lim defends his business and says similar practices are occurring in China
Siem Reap Crocodile Farm worker Pann Sophany, about to drop a live chicken into a pit full of crocodiles. Photo by: MICHAEL SLOAN
WAKING up one morning to find your crocodile farm has been dubbed “Cambodia’s sickest tourist attraction” by the British tabloid press is not the best way to start the day.
That’s according to Vincent Lim, whose crocodile farm in Siem Reap was hit by a wave of bad publicity last week, prompted by an article in the UK red top The Mirror which reported that tourists can pay to throw live chickens and ducks to his menagerie of over 1,000 crocodiles.
Lim awoke on August 15 to headlines blaring “British holidaymakers throw chickens to be eaten alive by crocodiles at sick tourist attraction” and “ghoulish entertainment sees live birds thrown to their death by shameful, bloodthirsty Brits”.
And he's totally unrepentant.
“Have you ever been to a tiger zoo in China?” he asked, as we walked across a gantry suspended over six pools full of adult crocs, heaped atop one another in the baking mid-afternoon sun.
“They throw cows in there. They feed live cows to tigers. Cows. Now people say: ‘Don’t kill animals by feeding them to other animals live’, but in Cambodia we don’t have that law yet.”
Lim told 7Days he is unperturbed by an undercover report in British tabloid The Mirror that included footage of tourists tossing a chicken over the rails to a pit of crocodiles, as well as a breathless description of the horrors to be found inside his crocodile farm.
Walking past signs posted along the railings of his crocodile pits which offer visitors the option of paying $10 to throw in a live chicken or $6 to throw a duck, Lim said the offer is there to provide extra entertainment to visitors, few of whom actually take him up on the deal.
“It’s just for tourists. They like to see more action from the crocodiles. When you throw in something live the crocodiles have more action, they go and bite the thing. There is no law in Cambodia against it; if they come out with one, then we will have to follow it.”
Tourists paying the $3 entry fee to visit the farm, plus extra to chuck chickens to their deaths, are only a small part of the overall business, Lim told 7Days. His farm is primarily concerned with raising and selling baby crocodiles to overseas buyers.
“We have 600 adult crocodiles and 400 aged between one year and eight years. We sell the young crocodiles to China, Vietnam and Singapore, where they breed them for between one to three years and then kill them for their skin and meat. All those countries buy from the Cambodian breeders because it’s cheaper. In other countries they can’t afford to grow crocodiles big, because they don’t have the food for them to eat.”
While Lim’s crocodiles may occasionally dine on duck if a bloodthirsty backpacker wants to shell out $6, their primary dietary staple is fish, and a lot of it.
“An adult crocodile doesn’t eat every day, and even if you throw them food they don’t necessarily eat. They eat once every 10 days. This month it’s been very expensive because they don’t have much fish in the market.”
Pointing to a particularly large specimen sunning itself by the pool, Lim continued: “Like this big one, one of them eats four to five kilograms each, every 10 days. All up, they eat around 2,500 kilograms of fish. A kilogram of fish costs 70 cents so each time I have to spend around $1,700 to $1,800 to feed them. This month is more expensive than usual, but I think in October the price of fish will go down a little bit.”
Lim’s crocodile farm is unusual in that its land and buildings, as well as the crocodiles themselves, are all owned by the government, which leased the business to his father in 1998.
According to Lim, long before chickens and ducks were included on the menu, the crocodiles here may have dined on a far more exotic prey: human beings.
“We’ve heard the Khmer Rouge used to throw people in for the crocodiles to eat, it’s something we’ve heard many times,” he explained during a leisurely stroll around the crocodile pens.
What if the farm’s rumoured history ever repeated itself, I asked Lim. What would happen if someone actually did fall in?
“Lets say there’s an accident, and you fall over there,” Lim explained, pointing to a small patch of grey concrete surrounded by a mass of snoozing crocodiles.
“They’re not going to do anything. But just make sure you don’t fall into the water. If you do, there’s a 99 percent chance they’ll eat you. And if they bite anything that’s bigger than their mouth, something which they cannot swallow, then they’re going to spin. They’re going to spin you around underwater, and if they spin you, you’re dead.”
“But,” he added reassuringly, “in Cambodia it happens very rarely. This year I heard about an accident at a farm in Kampong Chhnang or Kampong Thom, where the crocodiles bit a man on the head and hands. But that man’s still alive, and that’s the only accident this year.”
The farm employs seven workers who venture into the crocodile pits as part of their job. Lim explained their safety precautions.
“You just need a big stick to hit them on the head and make them run into the water. But make sure you don’t go in the water. Sometimes the crocodiles will spin and kill each other in there. They fight sometimes, and sometimes they eat each other too. Of the 600 big ones, each year at least five to 10 die from fighting.
“Most of them die between January and April because that’s [mating] season. In those months … there’s a lot of dead [crocodiles].”
It is a practice he tries to discourage: “If one is dead from fighting you cannot do anything with it,” he said.
Apart from being dismembered by their mates, farm crocodiles are also at risk of disease, which Lim told 7Days he tries to prevent by feeding his animals more regularly than other breeders.
“In Cambodia there’s no [expert] to check with about the diseases. If the crocodiles have any diseases we cannot know. Even nowadays if the crocodiles have a disease, people just say: ‘Oh yeah, it died’. No one knows the reason.”
With his family’s 15-year lease on the farm set to expire in 2016, Lim said he’s not sure whether he will bid for the government to extend it.
Having taken over management of the farm from his father three years ago, Lim has since used the experience to set up a private crocodile farming business of his own, and said that breeding crocodiles is in his family’s blood.
“This crocodile farm is unusual because it’s government-owned and the only one open to tourists. I have another farm of my own but you have to have a licence from the government to open for tourists. The government doesn’t allow anyone else to do it. In Siem Reap we have 500 families with crocodiles, but they can’t open for tours. They only grow them as a family business.”