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“The wild population [of Siamese crocodiles] is still critically endangered, more than they were when the farms were established.  So farms asking to lift the [CITES] ban when the species is worse off, that doesn’t make sense”

~ Paolo Martelli DVM Crocodile Specialist Group

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CROCODILIAN COMMERCE NOT CONSERVATION







  


Title:  Article three - Crocodilian Commerce Not Conservation

Published:  First published March 2019

Author: Save Our Rhino & Action For Rhinos

Family:  Crocodylidae

IUCN conservation status:  Critically endangered

CITES status:  Appendix. 1



Crocodilian Characteristics:


The Siamese crocodile is one of 23 crocodilian species comprising of two alligators, six caimans, 14 crocodiles and 1 species of gharial and despite several status assessments during that last quarter of a century the species still remains one of the least studied and most endangered of all crocodilians.


Characterised by a relatively broad snout and elevated bony crest behind each eye the Siamese crocodile was once widely distributed, inhabiting the tropical freshwaters and swamps of much of mainland Southeast Asia including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Borneo and some of the adjacent small islands as well as parts of Java.  Today, much of the crocodiles’ natural range is greatly depleted and only very small, fragmented populations survive in the wilds of Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam.



Credit: FAUNA AND FLORA INTERNATIONAL

Credit: TONTAN TRAVEL

Credit: UNKNOWN

The Demise of the Siamese Crocodile:


Siamese crocodiles, like all crocodilian species have been subjected to human disturbance and uncontrolled exploitation which has negatively impacted wild populations.  The species is incredibly vulnerable to habitat degradation through range reduction as large swathes of rainforest are cleared for agricultural land.  Other significant threats include accidental capture in fishing gear and poaching however, commercial hunting for meat and skin is considered the principle reason for their dramatic decline.   


Commercial hunting of crocodilians began to build momentum at the beginning of the 20th century when crocodile skins were associated exclusively with luxury items.  By the 1930s skins began to be mass produced with demand exploding after the end of World War 2 (roughly between 1945-1960) during which time an estimated three million wild-taken skins were marketed each year, significantly depleting wild populations by as much as 80% in around 75 years (roughly three generations).


Although no exact population figures exist, it is conservatively estimated the global wild population of Siamese crocodiles is less than 1000 mature adults (with some speculating the number could be as few as just 500) yet commercial trade has seen captive numbers increase exponentially to serve the crocodile leather industry.



Commerce not Conservation:


There is no doubt commercial farming of Siamese crocodiles has significantly increased the overall population, particularly in Thailand, home to the largest captive Siamese crocodile population in the world.   Successful breeding programmes saw captive numbers reach in excess of 700,000 by 2013 in Thailand alone so it’s no surprise supporters of a legalised trade of rhino horns have been quick to point out the apparent success of crocodile farming as a means to add credibility to their own trade agenda however, similarities between crocodile and rhino farming are tenuous.


The crocodile trade is a firmly established multi-million dollar global industry but is not an industry which can be easily compared with the proposal of trading rhino horns, largely due to enormous differences between the two species.  Crocodiles are now bred almost exclusively for commercial purposes with trade being of little benefit to wild species preservation.  It’s also apparent; the crocodile industry has failed to live up to the expectation of being a simple, economic solution to underpin conservation.

Exports of Crocodylus siamensis skins from Thailand and Vietnam (1995-2007)

Pro-trade proponents also claim the establishment of crocodile farms (many of which are open to the public and marketed as conservation and education centres as well as tourist attractions where humans interact with captive bred crocodiles during live shows) has been responsible for virtually eradicating poaching through strictly controlled trade, thus removing the monopoly from the syndicates and preventing raw crocodile skin from entering the black market.  


In truth, poaching was in decline due to diminishing numbers of wild crocodiles leaving remaining populations in inaccessible or in highly protected areas but growing consumer expectations also served to hinder illegal profitability.  Crocodile skin is graded on both visual and textural quality which includes aspects such as symmetry of the tiling patterns, flawlessness, lack of scarring and imperfections, colour, suppleness and texture.  The skin of the belly has its own grading system because it’s the most desirable part of the leather due to its softer qualities.  Crocodiles bred in single pens will yield a different leather quality to those housed in mixed pens but both forms of captive breeding ensure higher quality leather than those of wild caught crocodiles whose skin is subject to increasing imperfections due to their wild habitats making their leather less desirable to both manufacturer and consumer and thus considerably cheaper.  



Rhino Trade Verses Crocodile Farming:


The key principles of sustainable use of wildlife is to provide a consumer demand with a legally, sustainable sourced product through financial incentive.  Unfortunately, sustainable use has become a by-word of conservation and simplifying the challenging aspects of conservation management, moral and ethical issues which expose a lack of any systematic economic analysis of the potential international trading of rhino horns.  Almost every similarity between the current trade of Siamese crocodiles and potential trade of rhino horns only promotes the negative aspects of trading exotic, endangered species from a market driven perspective.


Firstly, one of the reasons the crocodile industry has become so successful is the ability to reproduce and increase captive populations over a relatively short period.  Rhinos are slow breeding mammals with one of the longest gestation periods averaging about 450 days (or between 15-18 months), a major obstacle to replenishing populations.  Siamese crocodiles however can lay anywhere between 20 and 50 eggs each breeding season with hatching occurring after approximately 80 days (between 2-3 months), reaching sexual maturity at around ten years of age although most are usually killed at around 4 years for their skin.  Their meat is also sold into the food industry, averaging around $150 per kilo although it is considered a by-product.  


Rhinos on the other hand are not suitable for dehorning until they reach at least the age of five years at which time only a small amount of the stump can be removed.  Another significant downside to de-horning for economic incentives is the portion of horn intended for sale on an open market.  To be practised safely, rhino horn is only removed just above the germinal growth layer leaving a visible stump (think cutting your nail to just above the flesh.  Removal beyond this point will cause pain, bleeding and risk of infection).  The remainder of the horn (the stump) carries an estimated black market value of around £35,000, still a good investment to a potential poacher but also valued in traditional Asian medicine.  The root of the rhino horns sits out from the skull base and because the root is a living part of the animal, it secretes a serum (known as horn pulp) which is highly valued in Asian medicines.  From a poachers point of view, removing the entire or bottom portion of the horn is more profitable while the animal is alive because it will continue to secrete more pulp, thus retaining a higher price.

Could selective breeding motivate rhino farmers to maximise profits? What is stopping unscrupulous breeders from manipulating genetics, selecting traits which could increase consumer desirability of rhino horn, particularly given that increased weight dimension and condition could potentially increase the market value?


Without breed specific legislation is it possible rhino in private ownership could be bred to produce faster growing or larger horns in order to achieve optimum market value?  Likewise, accelerated maturity may be of benefit if the objective is to maximise herd size (speed breeding). For breeding quotas to be achieved it’s likely methods such as artificial insemination will be deployed to increase reproduction beyond natural breeding cycles.


Like captive reared crocodiles, farmed rhinos do not live in conditions which emulate their natural environment and although living conditions may appear adequate unlike farmed crocodiles where housing is visibly unsuitable (and conditions often distressing) both species lack enrichment. Behavioural changes including socialisation, reproduction and basic natural instincts risk dilution particularly over a number of generations is also risked when herding animals together like rhinos who would naturally lead a largely solitary life.  Crocodiles raised in captive farms are fed regularly and prevented from fighting with one another to keep their skins in pristine condition.  To date there is insufficient studies to determine either the physical or psychological effects of intensive farming and subsequent de-horning despite a significant number of privately owned rhinos in South Africa (the only African country to permit private owned rhinos) and game reserves.  


Likewise, increased populations in captive environments are prevalent to nutritional and transmissible diseases and infections requiring dietary supplements, particularly through the dry season when natural food sources are scarce, this is especially necessary if the captive rhinos are denied larger free-roaming areas to migrate to allow soil replenishment and foliage growth.Most crocodilians keep a body temperature within 28 and 33 degrees Celsius. On farms, body temperatures can reach 36 degrees Celsius, which affects the animals' immune system, and puts them at risk of various illnesses and stress.


Like rhinos which are a keystone species with a critical ecological role within their environments, crocodiles are also important to eco-systems and are known to consume carcasses of numerous other species, helping to balance populations within the eco-system.


More worrying however is the potential to further exploit farmed rhinos for financial gain because it’s not just rhino horns in high demand in Asia but skin and urine too which is also used (although to a lesser extent than horns).  In some Asian countries, including Nepal, rhino urine is consumed to treat asthma attacks, stomach disorders and nasal congestion, while the hide is crafted into a range of curios including lamps, bowls and jewellery boxes.  Even body organs such as the liver are cooked and consumed to purportedly fend off serious disease such as tuberculosis and bones have been fashioned into rings or carvings for religious ceremonies.  





Rhino farm, South Africa.   IMAGE SOURCE HERE

Crocodile farm, Philippines .   IMAGE SOURCE HERE

Conclusion:


Commercial wildlife farms where wildlife and exotic species are bred in captivity with the purpose of harvesting the animal or animal derivative for commercial profit are proof that wildlife can not be industrialised without consequences.  


Siamese crocodiles are farmed in Cambodia which has about 700 crocodile farms with over 20,000 adult crocodiles and 300,000 hatchlings, Vietnam and Thailand, now custodian to the largest number of captive reared Siamese crocodiles in the world.   Thailand is the largest exporter of Siamese crocodile skins and has in excess of 700,000 Siamese crocodiles living on 22 registered breeding farms and approximately 929 smaller farms (in 2011) yet the wild population is estimated to less than 1000 and according to the latest report by the IUCN (dated 2012), the wild population is still in decline. Thailand’s industry is worth an estimated $168m and is continuing to grow.


What we are now seeing with Siamese crocodile farming and in fact farming of crocodilian species across the world is that as wealth increases and products fashioned with crocodile skins become more popular and accessible, demand is growing.  Trade has failed to alleviate poaching entirely.  Crocodile eggs are still stolen from the wild and instead of finding their way onto the black market they are being laundered through the regulated trade instead.  Is it at all out of the realms of possibility this would happen through a legalised trade to sell rhino horns?  After all, private rhino owners were implicated in pseudo hunting which was first identified as taking place in South Africa back in 2003 by TRAFFIC.  Rhino owners were allowing permitted hunts to take place under the guise of trophy hunting but the horns were in fact laundered onto the black market.


The farming of exotic species also raises ethical and moral issues which must be addressed, particularly with the proposal of farming rhinos through legalised international trade.  Welfare standards are not universal and animal rights organisations have exposed the brutality to which crocodiles suffer including overcrowded pens, stagnant water and even questionable slaughter methods which include cervical dislocation (a process of inserting a metal rod into the spinal cord in an attempt to stun and dislocate the vertebrae).  Many crocodiles survive the process and are left to suffer in agony.  Of course the rationale of pro-trade proponents is rhinos do not need to perish to obtain the horns.  However, rhinos did not evolve over 40 million years to grow an appendage they do not need or use.  Rhino horns are an integral part of their daily life.  The horn is used for defence, dominance displays, maternal care (guiding calves) and maintenance (foraging, digging water beds, uprooting shoots).  But dehorning also partially transfers the risk from the rhino to owner, creating additional financial burdens such as permits, tagging, transporting, security and storage of removed horns in addition to the initial veterinary costs of the de-horning procedure.  


How will a government, already exhibiting a clear inability to implement and monitor current legislation let alone forcefully protect the countries rhinos have the ability to action full control over an international trade?  If demand increases as expected (and has been witnessed with numerous other trades of wildlife), this will further jeopardise species survival leaving captive rhinos better protected than their wild cousins as well as placing increasing pressure on government departments to find (already stretched) funding to offer protection.  So, how will farming rhinos for commercial trade actually benefit wild rhinos?