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 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 the crocodile us extinct from 99% of its former range. Only small, fragmented populations survive in the wilds of Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
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.
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 sourced skins were marketed each year, significantly depleting wild populations by as much as 80% in around 75 years.
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.
Siamese crocodile farm, Viet Nam. Marketed as a tourist attraction to unsuspecting visitors, but crocodiles are bred for trade
Commercial farming of Siamese crocodiles has significantly increased the overall population, particularly in Thailand, which has in excess of 700,000, the largest captive Siamese crocodile population in the world, so it's not surprising that supporters of a legalized trade have pointed out the apparent success of crocodile farming in order to boost their trade agenda. However, there are very few similarities between rhino and crocodile farming.
Crocodiles are now bred almost exclusively for commercial purposes, with trade being of little benefit to wild species preservation. Additionally, the crocodile industry has not lived up to the expectation of being a simple, economical solution to support conservation.
According to pro-trade advocates, the establishment of crocodile farms (many of which allow tourists to interact with captive-bred crocodiles during live shows) has been responsible for virtually eradicating poaching through strictly controlled trade, thereby removing the monopoly of the syndicates and preventing raw skin from entering the black market.
Poaching was in decline due to diminishing numbers of wild crocodiles, leaving remaining populations in inaccessible or highly protected areas. Growing consumer expectations also served to hinder illegal profitability. Crocodile skin is graded on both visual and textural quality, including 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 leather due to its soft qualities. A crocodile bred in a single pen will produce a different type of leather than one bred in a mixed pen.
In contrast to trades in other wildlife derivatives such as rhino horns, bear bile and tiger bones, where farmed alternatives are considered inferior to wild sourced, both forms of captive breeding of Siamese crocodiles are considered more desirable. As a result, controlled breeding conditions result in far higher quality leather than wild-sourced leather, which is subject to many defects as a result of its habitat and behavior, making it far less attractive to both manufacturers and consumers.
The purpose of sustainable use of wildlife is to provide consumer demand with a legally sourced product through financial incentives. Unfortunately, sustainable has become a by-word of conservation, simplifying the challenging aspects of conservation management and ignoring moral and ethical issues. Similarities between the current trade of Siamese crocodiles and the potential trade of rhino horns highlight the negative aspects of trading exotic, endangered species.
One reason crocodile farming has been a success is due to crocodile reproduction. Siamese crocodiles can lay anywhere between 20 and 50 eggs each breeding season, with hatching occurring after approximately 80 days. The crocs reach sexual maturity at around ten years of age, although most are usually killed at around four (the average lifespan is around 25-35 years). Their meat is also sold, predominantly to the food industry, despite being considered a by-product. Rhinos, on the other hand, are slow breeding mammals with a gestation averaging about 450 days (or between 15-18 months), a major obstacle to replenishing populations.
Rhinos can not be dehorned 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 the 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 just above the flesh). Removal beyond this point will cause pain, bleeding and a risk of infection. It is estimated that the stump of the horn is worth around £35,000 on the black market, which would make it a good investment for a potential poacher. However, the stump is also valuable in traditional Asian medicine. Because the rhino horn root is a living part of the animal, it secretes a serum (known as horn pulp) that is highly valued in Asian medicine. From a poacher's 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.
Like captive reared crocodiles, farmed rhinos do not live in conditions that emulate their natural environment and although living conditions may appear adequate, unlike farmed crocodiles where housing is visibly unsuitable (and conditions are often distressing), both species lack enrichment. A number of behavioral changes, including socialization, reproduction, and basic natural instincts, are at risk, especially when herding animals together like rhinos, which would normally live largely alone.
Crocodiles raised on captive farms are fed regularly and prevented from fighting one another to keep their skins in pristine condition. Although there are significant numbers of rhinos privately owned in South Africa (the only African country that permits privately owned rhinos) and game reserves, little research has been conducted to determine the physical or psychological effects of intensive farming and subsequent regular dehorning.
Likewise, increased populations in captive environments are prevalent to nutritional deficiencies and transmissible diseases and infections requiring dietary supplements, particularly during the dry season when natural food sources are scarce. This is especially necessary if captive rhinos are denied larger free-roaming areas to migrate to allow soil replenishment and foliage growth. Breeding crocodiles also suffer cramped conditions, and both species are sensitive to stress.
One major consideration of legalising international trade of rhino horns, which is already in practice within the agricultural industry, is selective breeding. Gene manipulation has already been employed in livestock production to produce more favorable cattle and poultry, and although the industry is closely monitored and subject to strict guidelines, what is stopping rhino owners from farming and breeding their animals for larger horns that will fetch a higher price if horns can be traded internationally?
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 are also used (although to a lesser extent than horns). Rhino urine is consumed in some Asian countries, including Nepal, to treat asthma attacks, stomach problems, and nasal congestion, and the hide is crafted into lamps, bowls, and jewelry boxes. Bones have also been carved into rings or made into carvings for religious ceremonies to ward off serious diseases such as tuberculosis.
Rhinos on a breeding farm in Klerksdorp, South Africa. Credit: David Chancellor, Kiosk
In commercial wildlife farms, wildlife and exotic species are bred in captivity for the purpose of harvesting the animal or animal derivative for commercial gain.
Siamese crocodiles are farmed in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, now custodian to the largest number of captive reared Siamese crocodiles in the world. As the largest exporter of Siamese crocodile skins, Thailand has approximately 700,000 Siamese crocodiles on 22 breeding farms and 929 smaller ones. However, the wild population is estimated at less than 1000, and the IUCN has recently reported that the population is still declining (dated 2012). Currently, Thailand's industry is worth $168m and is growing.
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. Instead of finding their way onto the black market, crocodile eggs are being laundered through the regulated trade. Can this happen through a legalized trade in rhino horns? Private rhino owners were implicated in pseudo hunting that TRAFFIC first uncovered in 2003 in South Africa. Permitted hunts were taking place under the guise of trophy hunting, but rhino horns were laundering onto the black market.
The farming of exotic species raises ethical and moral issues that must be addressed, particularly with the proposal of farming rhinos through legalised international trade. Welfare standards are not universal. Crocodiles suffer due to overcrowded pens, stagnant water and questionable slaughter methods, which include cervical dislocation (a process of inserting a metal rod into the spinal cord to stun and dislocate the vertebrae). Many crocodiles survive the process and are left to suffer. Proponents of trade argue rhinos do not need to die in order to obtain horns. However, rhinos did not evolve over 40 million years to grow an appendage they do not need or use. Rhino horns are integral and used for defence, dominance displays, maternal care (guiding calves) and maintenance (foraging, digging water beds, uprooting shoots). Dehorning also partially transfers the risk from the rhino to the 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 govern international trade? If demand increases as expected (and has been witnessed with numerous other trades in 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?