From the street, Chhin Sokuntheary’s Tuol Kok home looks the same as any other, hidden behind a concrete wall, next to an empty lot hidden by the same wall.
But walk through the gate, turn right and climb a set of wooden stairs, and you find yourself standing above 1,000 crocodiles.
They all belong to Chhin Sokuntheary. She’s been a crocodile farmer for 25 years. Her children call her the Crocodile Commander.
From Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Battambang, Kompong Chhnang and Kompong Thom provinces, more and more people like the Crocodile Commander are farming these reptiles. Siamese crocodiles are endangered in the wild, but very much alive in farms in Southeast Asia.
The demand for crocodile meat and skin has been on the rise since 2000, having suffered since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Ministry of Agriculture Fishery Department Director Nao Thouk said.
Increased demand has brought with it more profitable crocodile farms and the potential for manufacturers of skin products like shoes and handbags.
But, conservationists warn, it could also threaten the country’s wild stock of Siamese crocodiles, which were only recently discovered in the country.
“We are ready to sell crocodile skins to Singapore now,” said Nao Thouk, whose department oversees domestic crocodiles. “I’ve already sold 30 crocodile skins to a Singapore company…but we are considering how much of a market Cambodia can support.”
And, he said, the ministry has taken measures to ensure crocodiles sold for export are raised domestically and not taken from wild stock.
“I bought 1,000 special rings from the US to mark on crocodile skin before export. The rings state that the crocodile skin was taken from a farm in Cambodia [as well as the farm’s] name, the size and quality of the skin,” Nao Thouk said.
The wildlife protection office is also planning to protect wild crocodiles, Fisheries Department Crocodile Conservation Project Supervisor Chheang Davy said.
Conservationists are concerned wild crocodiles could be captured to be introduced into captive stocks, he said. The department is working on a system for registering domestic crocodiles, so wild ones cannot be transported illegally.
An expedition into the Cardamom Mountains in the west found a population of Siamese crocodiles, an endangered species with no significant numbers in any other part of the world. These and other species of Cambodian crocodiles could be in danger without proper procedures to protect them from farmers in Cambodia and Thailand.
Thailand has extensive crocodile farms, but has completely depleted its wild stock, causing concern that a smuggling market of wild Cambodian crocodiles could develop, Flora and Fauna International Cambodia Representative Hunter Weiler said.
Too many farms and not enough protection “might put additional pressure on the wild crocodiles. You need to have safeguards,” Weiler said.
The government and the Wildlife Conservation Society are in the middle of a crocodile survey to find out the extent of crocodile farming here, where “local villagers have them under their houses in pens and things,” society Program Coordinator Colin Poole said.
“As long as none of the crocs are being taken from the wild, as long as they’re bred in captivity, it’s OK,” he said.
Already crocodile farming is on the rise, especially in Siem Reap province, where they can also be a tourist attraction, Nao Thouk said. His department has told farmers to hold onto baby crocodiles, since they are worth much less than adults.
“If they sell a baby, they make $35. If they keep it until it is 3 years old, they will make $250 to $300,” he said.
There are around 35,000 female crocodiles being bred at farms, Nao Thouk said. About a third as many males are producing 70,000 babies per year.
A factory in Singapore had proposed building a manufacturing company in Cambodia, using crocodile skins for bags and other luxury items. The company told him they could use 70,000 3-year-old crocodiles per year in production and employ between 2,000 and 3,000 people.
Kouy Chin, a crocodile farmer in Siem Reap, said the prices for crocodiles have been going up since 2000, with Vietnam and Thailand buying most of them. From there, he said, they are sold to China.
With large demand coming from China, and experienced exporters in Vietnam and Thailand, “it is not difficult to find a market now,” he said.
And crocodiles are essentially easy to care for.
A hundred crocodiles need a pond of about 40 square meters, with water about a meter deep. Females produce eggs yearly, with the young ones laying about 20 to 30 eggs and the older ones laying from 40 to 60, he said.
“They are not difficult to feed, they never get sick, and there is no need to take care of them so much,” Kouy Chin said. “Just give them food once a week and change their water once every three months.”
He and other farmers, mindful of the value of mass production for companies and manufacturers, want to form an association to consolidate their crocodiles for mass markets.
“We won’t have enough crocodiles to support a company unless we create a community,” he said.
Crocodile Commander Chhin Sokuntheary said there is plenty of room for the business to grow. In fact, in addition to her Tuol Kok farm, she has one in Takmau district. All told, she has 30,000 crocodiles, including the babies. She’s planning to bring that number to 100,000.
“No other business makes money better than a crocodile farm,” she said. “I can’t do a better business than this farm.”
Below her, one thousand crocodiles sat there, silent, blinking.