Cambodia is seeking to register more than a dozen crocodile farms under an international treaty that protects the critically endangered Siamese crocodile, paving the way for the legal export of crocodile skins to lucrative overseas markets, according to state officials.
In Hul, deputy director of the Fisheries Conservation Department at the Ministry of Agriculture, said the government has submitted a list of 16 captive-bred crocodile farms to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and is expecting a response on its application for licences to permit quota-based exports of crocodile skins.
“We expect to receive approval since as our documents already comply with CITES regulations,” he said. “We only needed to confirm three or four points.”
Cambodia has about 700 crocodile farms with over 20,000 adult crocodiles and 300,000 hatchlings, according to recent estimates, with captive-breeding operations concentrated in Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampong Thom and Kampong Chhnang provinces.
The farms breed Siamese crocodile, a freshwater species that once ranged over much of Southeast Asia but whose numbers have dwindled to less than a few hundred in the wild, mostly in Cambodia.
Teetering on extinction, the Siamese crocodile is listed as a critically endangered species on CITES Appendix I, which bans commercial export of the crocodile or its products except under special circumstances.
In 1999, CITES issued licences to five crocodile farms in Cambodia for limited exports of captive-bred Siamese crocodiles, and on the condition that no wild crocodiles were used to replenish their stock.
The exemption provides a quota for exports of the crocodiles and their skins provided farmers can demonstrate that their operations do not damage the remaining wild population – not an easy task when high prices give traders, poachers and even park rangers a powerful incentive to catch them.
Hul said CITES registration is crucial to developing a sustainable commercial crocodile farming industry, and provides a legal way for farmers to realise the added-value of selling crocodile skins on the international market.
“The crocodile is an endangered species, so as a wildlife protection agreement CITES sets a quota on our crocodile exports in order to protect the species,” Hul explained. “Yet even with CITES protecting the species, cross-border smuggling continues to be a problem.”
He said the legalisation of exports could reduce the pressure from smuggling while providing more income to registered crocodile farmers.
“Before we had only five crocodile farms that were recognised by CITES, but now we would like to expand the market in order to match the growth of crocodile farming,” Hul said.
Legal export channels could also push local crocodile farmers to stop the export of live baby crocodiles using Thai and Vietnamese brokers, and instead, realise higher value added by selling the skins of fully-grown crocodiles in international markets.
According to Hul, baby crocodiles fetch as little as $10 each, while at two to four years a live crocodile can sell for at least $50 to $60. Crocodile farmers can also profit from selling the meat, which fetches about $2 to $2.5 per kilogram.
Nao Thouk, secretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, and a veteran breeder of Siamese crocodiles said farmers can make even more by selling the skins of adult crocodiles, which are turned into high-value belts, boots and handbags. He estimated that farmers lose about $100 in potential profit every time they sell a hatchling instead of a mature crocodile.
“The crocodile trade is a huge multimillion-dollar market based on the sale of the high-value skins,” he said. “By contrast, our farmers are all too happy to sell the live baby crocodiles, which offer just a small profit and in low demand.”
Crocodile farmer Ly Fem is among the 16 captive-breeding operations whose names were submitted to CITES for licensing. He said the registration process has taken three years already, and he is hoping to complete the procedure soon.
Fem, who has over 3,000 crocodiles on his farm in Krabei Riel commune in Siem Reap province, said crocodile hatchlings at one point were selling for as high as $27 each, but now are fetching as little as $8 on the Thai and Vietnamese market.
“Crocodiles have become so cheap now that farmers cannot make a profit anymore,” he said, adding that CITES registration would help him cut out the middleman.
“If we get CITES approval we will be able to export our crocodiles to international markets directly instead of relying on neighbouring countries,” he said. “Without CITES registration our crocodiles will not be recognised as captive-bred specimens, and it will be assumed that we hunted them in the wild or are smuggling them.”