“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
Copyright 2019, Action For Rhinos, all rights reserved
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CROCODILIAN COMMERCE NOT CONSERVATION
Title: Article three -
Published: First published March 2019
Author: Save Our Rhino & Action For Rhinos
IUCN conservation status: Critically endangered
CITES status: Appendix. 1
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
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
Like rhinos which are a keystone species with a critical ecological role within their environments, crocodiles are also important to eco-
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
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-
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?