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Cambodia’s crocodile farmers and conservationists forge unlikely alliance

With Siamese crocodiles on the brink of extinction in the wild, conservationists are turning to Southeast Asia’s crocodile farms for help – despite their role in driving the species’ disappearance

Crocodile wrangler Vah Regni steps onto a Siamese crocodile as he captures it. The animal is one of 24 that was collected from a farm in Siem Reap and donated to a conservation organisation trying to save wild populations of Siamese crocodiles in Cambodia. (Image: Anton L. Delgado)

A crocodile bellows as a rope is hooked around its teeth and pulled. After the reptile is heaved out of a cool concrete pool onto sun-cooked pavement, a wrangler steps on its snout and binds its jaw shut, the crocodile’s bellows turning to hisses.

Within an hour, more than 20 crocodiles are tied up and piled into the bed of a truck. These are Siamese crocodiles, some of more than 2,500 at a farm in the Cambodian city of Siem Reap. Cambodia’s crocodile farms breed and sell live crocodiles, often to buyers in China, Thailand and Vietnam, where they are harvested to make crocodile leather and other products.

But the animals being collected today are not destined for sale or slaughter. Instead, they are a donation from the farm to conservationists trying to save the last wild populations of Siamese crocodiles in Cambodia.

The Siamese crocodile was believed to be extinct in Cambodia until 2000, when a survey led by conservation organisation Fauna & Flora International rediscovered a remnant population in the Cardamom Mountains, in the southwest of the country.

Scientists estimate only a few hundred Siamese crocodiles survive in the wild in Southeast Asia today. Cambodia is home to the largest wild population, numbering 200 to 400 individuals according to a 2015 study. Meanwhile, a regional study published the following year estimated that around 2,800 farms in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam house more than 1.53 million crocodiles, including Siamese, Cuban and saltwater species and hybrids.

Juvenile Siamese crocodiles at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center open their mouths to keep cool – a process similar to panting
Juvenile Siamese crocodiles at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center open their mouths to keep cool – a process similar to panting (Image: Anton L Delgado)

How farming drove the disappearance of Southeast Asia’s crocodiles

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the Siamese crocodile as ‘critically endangered’ on its Red List of Threatened Species since 1996. Despite being historically abundant in wetlands across mainland Southeast Asia through to Borneo and Java, the Siamese crocodile was extinct across most of its range by the 1990s.

The most recent IUCN assessment in 2012 estimated the global population of the species to number no more than 500 to 1,000 individuals, in isolated populations in Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Hunting of wild populations for their skins was the main driver behind huge declines in the mid 20th century. Cambodia’s first commercial crocodile farms, where wild-caught individuals were kept and bred for their body parts, were established in the 1940s. The first farms in Thailand were recorded five years later, according to an IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group report.

Siamese and hybrid crocodiles in a pool at a crocodile farm in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The farm, which was established in 1990 and registered with CITES in 2017 to allow export of the protected species, is home to approximately 2,500 to 3,000 crocodiles. (Image: Anton L Delgado)

“Wild populations got absolutely demolished because of farmers capturing crocodiles in the wild to build up their own stock,” Joe Rose, captive breeding project officer at Fauna & Flora International in Cambodia, tells The Third Pole. He says this was particularly common in Cambodia during the 1980s to 1990s as the industry grew.

By 2016, approximately 900 farms in Cambodia were estimated to have a stock of more than 250,000 crocodiles. With farms often purposefully interbreeding species for commercial reasons, the study couldn’t determine how many were pure-bred Siamese crocodiles.

Beyond Cambodia, commercial farming of Siamese crocodiles occurs in Thailand and Vietnam, which are estimated to have 800 and 1,100 crocodile farms, respectively.

So many farms, in Cambodia and in the region, were just sucking animals out of the wild
Jenny Daltry, Fauna & Flora International

Siamese crocodiles are protected under Cambodia’s 2006 Law on Fisheries, which prohibits the unlicensed take of certain ‘aquatic animals’, with penalties under the law up to five years’ imprisonment and fines of several million Cambodian riels (1 million riel equating to USD 246). A subsequent sub-decree (No. 123) lists Siamese crocodiles as one of the protected aquatic species, along with the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin and Mekong giant catfish.

Siamese crocodiles are also protected internationally, being listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This means international commercial trade in the species is generally prohibited, but there are exceptions. A list of CITES-registered captive-breeding operations, permitted to raise and export Siamese crocodiles, includes 28 in Thailand, 21 in Cambodia and 10 in Vietnam. A robust international market for Siamese crocodile products, from skins and skulls to leather products and live individuals, is recorded on the CITES trade database.

A Siamese crocodile being collected from a pool at a crocodile farm in Siem Reap (Image: Anton L Delgado)

From 2010 to 2020, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam reported the export of more than 547,000 live Siamese crocodiles, with China listed as the importer of nearly 80% of these crocodiles. All were recorded as being bred in captivity. According to a study on global trade in crocodilians from 2017-19, large numbers of Siamese crocodiles exported to China are destined for consumption as food.

Over the same period, the three countries reported the export of almost 400,000 skins and more than 80,000 Siamese crocodile ‘bodies’ to countries around the world, including the United States and several EU countries. Crocodile leather is widely used to make shoes, bags and other accessories for markets worldwide. The biggest exports recorded involved more than 100,000 live Siamese crocodiles exported from Vietnam to China in 2019, and 78,040 ‘bodies’ exported from Thailand to Hong Kong in 2013.

Crocodile farms as unlikely conservation partners

In response to the critically low numbers left in the wild, the Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Project, a collaboration between Fauna & Flora International and the Forestry Administration of Cambodia, established a captive breeding programme with 35 pure-bred Siamese crocodiles at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center in 2009. Since 2012, the project has released 136 pure-bred Siamese crocodiles into the Cardamom Mountains, according to Pablo Sinovas, flagship species manager with Fauna & Flora in Cambodia.

As part of this programme, conservationists have turned to the source of by far the biggest populations of Siamese crocodiles alive today: commercial farms.

“Until recently there wasn’t much of a relationship between farmers and conservationists,” says Rose. “In the last year or so, we managed to meet a few open-minded farmers interested in conservation.”

Crocodile wrangler Noo-hok Sang carries a captured crocodile in Siem Reap that is being donated to a conservation organisation (Image: Anton L Delgado)

A third of the Siamese crocodiles released to date were from farms, says Sinovas. In total, he says, approximately 300 crocodiles have been donated by farmers to the captive-breeding and release programme.

“Farm donations are really important for conservation because Siamese crocodiles have gotten to such small stocks,” adds Rose. “It would take a very long time for [them] to breed and build the population up. Releasing additional crocodiles helps diversify the gene pool and boosts numbers in those remaining wild stocks.”

Jenny Daltry, a technical adviser for Fauna & Flora who was part of the survey team that rediscovered Cambodia’s wild Siamese crocodiles, says that initially farms were the biggest threat to the region’s crocodiles. “So many farms, in Cambodia and in the region, were just sucking animals out of the wild,” she says.

“It was quite difficult to partner with the industry at that stage,” she adds. But while developing a relationship with the industry has proven challenging at times, she says it is now “going in the right direction”.

A truck full of crocodiles prepares to drive from a farm in Siem Reap to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center near Phnom Penh (Image: Anton L Delgado)

While “opportunistic, small-scale poaching might occur”, farms likely no longer take from wild populations, says Sinovas. “Given the very small numbers of Siamese crocodiles in remote wild locations, it would not be worth the effort to seek them out [when] thousands are breeding in farms.”

In Thailand, the Thai Crocodile Farmer Association, in association with the Department of National Parks and Mahidol University, released 20 pure-bred Siamese crocodiles in 2020, says Yosapong Temsiripong, chairman of the association, which represents 20 CITES-registered farms.

“We help wild populations by releasing crocodiles every year. Not only to rebuild wild stocks, but also to rebuild our reputation and change the perception of crocodile farmers in Thailand and Southeast Asia,” says Temsiripong, who is general manager of Sriracha Moda, a farm with more than 20,000 crocodiles. From 2023, the association plans to release 20 juvenile Siamese crocodiles into the national park every year, says Temsiripong.

A farm-donated, pure-bred Siamese crocodile is released into the Sre Ambel River that flows through Cambodia’s Southern Cardamom National Park (Image: Anton L Delgado)
Sim Khmao, leader of a patrol team of community wardens who protect crocodile sanctuaries in the Cardamom Mountains, releases a donated Siamese crocodile crocodile into the Sre Ambel River (Image: Anton L Delgado)

“And the only reason we release so few, or so relatively few, is because we have no habitat left,” Temsiripong continues. “All we have to work with is Pang Sida National Park.”

Is wildlife farming a sustainable model for conservation?

Whether commercial farming and trade of endangered species can help wild populations is a hotly debated topic among conservationists.

Advocates for a ‘sustainable use’ model of conservation contend a legal trade of farmed wildlife products can satisfy demand, thereby reducing pressure on wild populations. Other conservationists argue that legal trade often increases the demand for wildlife products, and that the strict regulation needed to ensure wild populations are not negatively affected is difficult to achieve in practice.

In a 2016 study, Laura Tensen, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Koblenz-Landau, proposed conditions that have to be met for farming to benefit conservation. These cover economics (farming must be cheaper than wild capture), to sourcing (farms must not restock from the wild, or launder illegally sourced animals) and demand (farming must not increase customer demand, and customers must show no preference between wild or farmed products).

Without very good governance or monitoring mechanisms in place, farms work to the detriment of wild populations of crocodiles.
Steven Platt, herpetologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society

“The minute any of these criteria aren’t met, there will be a negative effect on wildlife populations,” says Tensen, adding that situations which meet all the criteria are “very, very rare”. Significant enforcement and monitoring are needed to ensure these criteria are met at every farm, and without this, “wildlife farming can have disastrous effects,” says Tensen.

There are several examples of wild populations plummeting after the launch of commercial farming, from tigers in Laos to giant salamanders in China. While China has recently restricted farming of wild animals, at least for food consumption, the Nepal government is moving to launch commercial wildlife farming.

“I don’t have anything against farming, per se, but there are no conservation benefits to farming,” says Steven Platt, a herpetologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society who has worked on crocodile conservation in Southeast Asia since 1999. “When you have states that don’t have very good governance or monitoring mechanisms in place, those farms work to the detriment of wild populations of crocodiles.”

Patrick Aust, a member of the IUCN’s Crocodile Specialist Group, argues that the problem with the region’s crocodile farming is the way it has developed, rather than the concept itself. “There wasn’t any forward-thinking research or multidisciplinary environmental, social development work accompanying the expansion of the industry,” says Aust. “It was driven by the almighty dollar and the almighty dollar alone.”

According to Aust, who studies the potential of reptiles as a sustainable food source at the University of Oxford, small-scale crocodile farms could overcome issues such as extreme weather and disease outbreaks that impact the farming of other species. “They are a very versatile agricultural species to add to agrifood systems in a small-scale context, in fragile small communities.”

“The problem was the production model got centralised into bigger and bigger farms, detracting from that small-scale, resilient, sustainable model,” says Aust. But, he argues, “an optimal model of sustainable use conservation has already been proven to work” – crocodile ranching in Australia.

Can Australia’s ranching success be replicated?

“Regulated and sustainable trade works. Sustainable use works,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, during her opening remarks at the 2019 CITES summit. Andersen’s first and only example was the trade of crocodiles in Australia.

A 2019 CITES case study on crocodiles in Australia’s Northern Territory found that after hunting during the 1940s to 1960s caused severe declines in saltwater crocodile populations, a programme of “sustainable use” contributed to the recovery of wild populations. The programme is frequently referenced as a case study of successful sustainable use in broader debates on the commercial exploitation of wild animals.

The main model used in Australia’s crocodile industry is “ranching”, which relies on collection of wild eggs or young crocodiles that are statistically unlikely to survive to adulthood, and rearing them in captivity. They are then killed and processed when they reach a commercially viable size. The model is meant to incentivise landowners to protect crocodile habitats, as the model depends on wild populations.

Siamese crocodile hatchlings, under a year old, at the Siamese Crocodile Breeding Facility in Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center. There are 12 hatchlings at the facility as of February 2022. (Image: Anton L Delgado)

Charlie Manolis, interim co-chair of the IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group, recognises the success of Australia’s sustainable use programme, but believes its applicability in other contexts and countries has limitations.

“This style of conservation doesn’t work for everyone or every species, but for crocodilians in Australia it has worked,” says Manolis, who is also chief scientist at Wildlife Management International, a sustainable use conservation company. “In some countries, there is a limit to what you can do because of nature and demographics.”

A key factor for Australia’s success was the vast potential habitat in the Northern Territory, which Manolis says many countries in Southeast Asia have lost. “In other countries, like Thailand, there is so little habitat left. Where are you going to put your Siamese crocodiles?”

In contrast with Australia’s ranching model, Southeast Asia’s crocodile farms use a “closed-cycle” system, in which crocodiles of all ages were originally captured from the wild to create captive-bred populations. Adult crocodiles are now bred in captivity to produce eggs, which are reared until the crocodiles reach commercial size and are sold or slaughtered. In this system, the farms do not rely on healthy wild populations.

In March 2022, Fauna & Flora International conducted its largest Siamese crocodile release in Cambodia. Satellite tags were attached to the biggest crocodiles released into Steung Kampong Tachey, a section of the Sre Ambel River, in the Cardamom Mountains. (Image: Anton L Delgado)

The relationship formed between landowners, ranchers and conservationists was another key aspect of Australia’s success, says Manolis. However, he warns that given the tiny numbers of wild Siamese crocodiles, declines in suitable habitat and limited infrastructure for government regulation, replicating Australia’s crocodile ranching success in countries like Cambodia is unlikely.

Daltry warns that attempting to implement ranching as an alternative to Southeast Asia’s farming model would be risky. Since “so many livelihoods depend on the industry”, she says, it would “be very hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube”.

“Crocodiles are in more restricted areas, and with the aid of Indigenous people and local authorities, those populations can be protected and monitored more effectively,” says Daltry. “It is probably safer to stick with farming than try to set up anything too complicated that would need a lot of regulation.”

Despite the crocodile farming industry’s historical role in the demise of wild crocodiles in Southeast Asia, Daltry says that conservationists need to find ways to work with farmers because as long as there is international demand for crocodile products, the industry will remain a fixture in the region’s wildlife trade.

“I am not saying you should stop the farming industry or close it down. It is there, it exists,” she says. “What we need to look at is how do we work with the industry to ensure some of these animals live in the wild.”

Hor Leng (left) and Sam Han (right), veteran members of the Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Project, conduct a night survey of Siamese crocodiles following a release in the Sre Ambel River (Image: Anton L Delgado)

The lucky ones

At the Sre Ambel River, the Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Project is about to release a batch of crocodiles previously donated by the farm at Siem Reap. Those collected most recently will soon follow.

Pablo Sinovas, clenches his left hand around a 1.8 metre, 25 kg crocodile’s jaw.

He finds his footing on the mossy riverbed. Then he launches the animal into the river that flows through Cambodia’s Southern Cardamom National Park.

The crocodile’s snarl can be heard over the rushing rapids until it hits the water.

This release of crocodiles, in March 2022, is the largest Fauna & Flora has carried out in Cambodia. It aims to reinforce wild populations in the Cardamoms with 25 pure-bred Siamese crocodiles, all donated from farms.

“From farm to forest,” says Sinovas. “The lucky ones.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Southeast Asia Globe.

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