They might look like they are made from plastic, but flip them over and you will see a line where their stomachs were cut open and sewn together again.
On a counter at a Russian Market stall, four layers of stuffed crocodiles sit with jaws stretched open.
Nearby, body part trinkets are on display – key-chain pendants made from crocodile paws or heads. Their mouths are clenched shut and plastic, pearl-colored balls are inserted into their eye sockets by farmers looking to earn an extra buck.
The stuffed crocodile trade, which is legal in Cambodia, has raised concern among local animal welfare groups, who say the animals likely endured a brutal end and urge tourists to shun the souvenirs.
It’s a lucrative trade for market sellers who can earn $8 to $100 apiece for the baby reptiles, which are stuffed with cotton.
“The price keeps going up,” said crocodile merchant Liv Pik Vouch from behind her Russian market stall, adding that it has risen by around 50 per cent over the last two years.
Demand has grown in recent months, and most buyers are tourists from Russia and China, according to Vouch.
“It attracts customers because it’s new and strange,” she said. “At first, I took 10 crocodiles to my shop as a test, but then I started to bring more and more.”
She was the first to sell stuffed crocodiles in Phnom Penh, she said, but in the past six months several more merchants at the Russian Market have picked up on the unusual souvenir.
She and the two other traders at the market who sell the reptiles said their animals came from crocodile farms in Siem Reap. The crocodiles were first sold at the night market in Siem Reap in 2010, according to Loun Nam, the president of Cambodia’s Crocodile Feeder Association, which is based in the city.
“Before, we used to just throw dead crocodiles away, we didn’t think they were useful,” he said.
It was when crocodile farmers saw neighbouring countries like Thailand and Vietnam selling their stuffed skins that they decided to bring the idea to Cambodia.
Before then, they only sold larger crocodiles, which could be used to make bags and shoes, but now “even the smaller ones” can be used, Nam said.
In 2012, the price of live baby crocodiles that Cambodian farmers exported to Vietnam dropped due to an increase in supply, and farmers could therefore make more money from stuffed crocodile souvenirs than from the sale of live crocs, he added.
Nam also noted that while Cambodia does not currently have the expertise to transform crocodile skins into leather – Cambodian farmers sell unprocessed skins to other countries where products from crocodile leather are made – local farmers do make stuffed baby crocodiles on their own farms.
A female crocodile can produce as many as 50 eggs per year, and because feeding crocodiles is very expensive, farmers can’t afford to keep all the crocodiles that are born. (For instance, the Post reported in 2009 that the Siem Reap Crocodile Farm, which keeps 600 adult crocs, spends $1,700 to feed the reptiles every 10 days. The crocodiles on the farm produce 3,000 eggs each year.)
“We cannot keep all of them, so we need to sell some,” Nam said. Others die.
According to Nam, many baby crocodiles die from diseases caused by dirty or rotting water in which they live. Some farmers do not change the water into which crocodile food is thrown often enough, which causes this water to become unhealthy, he said.
Wildlife experts contest the claim that the animals die by themselves – if they do, it is due to negligence on the part of the farmers.
Nick Marx, the director of wildlife rescue with the Wildlife Alliance, said it was “highly unlikely” the baby crocodiles died by themselves, “unless they are being cared for extremely badly.”
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which has investigated conditions on crocodile farms, found them to be “extremely overcrowded, with pens allowing less than one square metre of space per adult animal,” according to Ashley Fruno, the spokeswoman for the Asia-Pacific region of PETA.
“Fights are common – especially during feeding time – and injuries from fights go untreated. During PETA’s investigation, one animal was missing almost half of the top bridge of his mouth and another was missing his entire paw,” she wrote in an email from the Phillippines,
“Most likely the animals endured a brutal death. We hope compassionate tourists will shun such cruel souvenirs,” she said.
According to Flora and Fauna International, the Siamese crocodile is critically endangered with only 250 adult species left in the wild in the remote corners of Cambodia’s Cardamon Mountains. Over the last 100 years, the Siamese crocodile disappeared from 99 percent of its historic range throughout Southeast Asia – which used to include Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand – due to hunting and habitat destruction.
According to Marx, the crocodiles for sale at Russian Market are probably not the endangered kind.
“Selling wildlife in Cambodia is illegal. However, crocodile farms are legal so long as the owners have a licence. It is not illegal to sell crocodiles, and most of the crocs now in these farms are probably hybrids,” Marx said, but added: “Of course, there may be some pure siamensis also – and identification of pure siamensis requires DNA testing.”
Likewise, not all customers at the Russian Market will be reassured about the ethics of selling crocodiles.
Bill Crozier, a doctor from Australia who shopped recently at the Russian Market, called the stuffed crocodile trade “pointless”.
“It just seems a shame to kill an animal to make an ornament,” he said.
Bringing stuffed crocodiles home
While buying a stuffed crocodile that was raised on a farm is legal in Cambodia, you should check your county’s regulations before bringing one home. For instance, importing crocodiles into the US isn’t allowed without a special permit. US Customs and Border Protection reported on its website in 2009 that a stuffed crocodile was seized by officials at the airport in Atlanta, Georgia, because importing crocodiles is a violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. More than 170 countries have ratified the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, including Australia, Canada, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Israel, Thailand and Cambodia. The convention prohibits the import and export of many species of crocodiles, including the Siamese crocodile, without a licence. Russia, China, France, Vietnam and Singapore have not ratified the convention.
For more information, visit www.cites.org.