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Croc Farmers Bite Back

By: The Mekong Times Posted: February-29-2008 in
The Mekong Times

Under the scorching sun, Kaing Savin flings bucketfuls of fish heads onto a throng of hissing crocodiles. Over the years, the 54-year-old crocodile farmer's dreams of growing rich on croc skins have been chewed up - he has sold fewer than five.

Kaing Savin's two hectare farm is situated along National Road 2, about 18 km from Phnom Penh in Kandal's Stung district. At the centre of a barren field is a foul smelling 60-square-meter pond teeming with crocodiles.

Like many Cambodians who began raising crocodiles years ago for their skins, Kaing Savin has discovered his product is not sellable because the quality is too low.

"We want to breed all the crocodiles for commercial use of their skins, but we just cannot because we don't have enough money or space to separate the crocs," he said up-ending another bucket of malodorous fish heads into the black water.

Joining the skin trade
Croc farming is not new to Kaing Savin, although he, like others in the village, used to only rear muggers (baby crocs) to be raised elsewhere. Muggers are cheap, at $8 to $10 per head, earning little for the farmers who raise them. Switching to raising mature crocodiles for their skins may be more lucrative - a good quality skin is worth between US$150 and US$200 - but the change is fraught with risks.

Nevertheless, Nao Thuok, director general of the fisheries administration and an expert in Cambodian crocodile farming, said farming crocodiles for their skins is the future.

"Crocodile farmers should accept the evolution from rearing crocodiles to produce young to rearing them for skin, because crocodile skins are currently valuable and the market is very good," he said.

Cambodia has the potential to produce over 100,000 skins per year worth an estimated US$30 million if standards are high, Nao Thuok claimed, so skin production is strongly encouraged by the fisheries administration, despite Cambodia's inexperience.

The hatching of an industry
Cambodia first began to rear crocodiles in the 1980s and by 1989 there were more than 800 farms throughout the Kingdom. In July 2007, the forestry administration invited the Singapore-based Heng Long firm and Zimbabwean crocodile experts to train Cambodians in the production of high quality crocodile skin.

Only 30 of the 800 crocodile farms in Cambodia snapped up the offer of free training, Nao Thuok grumbled, so unskilled farmers are needlessly ruining good croc skins. "In the future, we will not offer licenses to new crocodile farmers if they treat crocodile farming like poultry farming."

Farming methods a toothy issue
Croc farmers were unimpressed by Nao Thuok's criticisms, with many of them saying the industry is in a death roll.

Sorm Vanna, a Siem Reap croc farmer with 400 crocodiles, found criticisms over farming methods hard to swallow. The business has two weak points, she said - the high cost of feed and the poor market.

"If we don't have a market for crocodile skins, we cannot invest in farming," he said. "Farming crocodiles needs a lot of capital. If we start this business without a market to sell to, we risk losing everything. Who will lose? It is us."

Nao Thuok disagreed with Sorm Vanna's estimation of the croc skin market.

"I think Japan and Singapore are a good market for Cambodian crocodile skins," he said, pointing out that Singapore currently imports 200,000 African crocodile skins each year. It is a trade Cambodia could really sink its teeth into, Nao Thuok said.

For Kang Savin, start-up costs were the main problem. "I am also interested in the skin market but we cannot improve out farming techniques without study and time," he said. "These days I rear nearly 2,000 crocs. I can sell 6,000 baby crocs a year at US$8 to US$10 per head. We want to rear the babies to obtain their skins but it is impossible with our limited capability."

Luon Na rears about 200 crocs in Rohar Chin village, Siem Reap and is the president of a provincial association of crocodile farmers. He also said raising crocs for their skin was too expensive to be profitable, although loans to allow infrastructure improvements might make the process easier.

For some, livelihoods are under threat. Tuot Mom, a crocodile farmer in Krang Svay village, Kandal, said high costs and poor returns had made even traditional farming of crocs for offspring unappealing. "I am tired of crocodile farming because crocodile feed and skin buyers are hard to find," sighed the 44-year-old mother of seven.

Tuot Mom began raising crocodiles in 2003, buying around 400 muggers. "I have spent US$200 per month on crocodile food for the last 5 years, but I haven't received any income from them yet. I feel like selling all my crocodiles, but buyers only offer me a very low price. I have been selling tickets to tourists to see them," she said.

Tickets earn Tuot Mom between 50,000 riel (US$12.Cool and 70,000 riel (US$18) a week - not even enough to cover the crocs' feed. "I am not interested in crocodile farming. I cannot afford it. I will sell all my crocodiles if the price is high. I will no longer raise them, even if the price is high," she said.

Nao Thuok was thick-skinned about farmers' comments, saying farming for skins earns higher profits than traditional mugger farming. He pointed out that a single skin is worth ten to twenty times as much as a mugger, excluding the meat that can be sold for US$8 to US$10 per kilogram. It is the farmers who are at fault, he said. "If crocodile farmers will not follow our instructions, they will not be able to sell their crocodiles, and in the future, their businesses will collapse."

Next year further training will be provided for farmers with well-run operations, Nao Thuok continued, saying that he would promote the crocodile business "as a commercial transaction."

Chun Sophal is a reporter for the Mekong Times


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