Commander Crocodile Chhin Sokoun Theary has had enough. She has spent 30 years building her reptile-raising ranch from a cottage industry in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district into a sprawling, 2,000-crocodile complex in Kandal province and she’s not about to watch her beloved business be devoured by foreign competition.
Prices for live, baby crocodiles have dropped nearly 50 percent since January, and roughly 90 percent over the last five years. Overstocked crocodile breeders are now stretched to pay for the tons of rats, snakes and fish it takes to feed their voracious, rapidly breeding reptiles.
Conservationists also are worried that frustrated farmers will release their unsold crocs back into the wild, threatening the critically low number of endangered Siamese crocodiles.
“Crocodile farmers must find a new strategy or the prices will stay down and there will be no more business for anyone,” said Chhin Sokoun Theary, who is affectionately referred to as “Commander Crocodile” by her children and employees .
It’s a crisis that has struck at the very heart of the $5 million-a-year breeding industry and has backyard crocodile breeders and government officials alike searching for answers.
But some experts claim a solution may be only skin deep.
“I appeal to crocodile farmers to stop selling the babies and begin raising crocodile for the skin,” Chhin Sokoun Theary said.
Her plea, echoed by other crocodile farmers throughout Cambodia, has not gone unheard by officials at the Ministry of Agriculture. In an effort to establish sustainable profits for this time-honored industry, the ministry has invited two experts from Australia to conduct a two-day training course for crocodile farmers in Phnom Penh beginning July 5.
“We will begin to change the concept of farmers from trading in live crocodiles to trading in its skin,” said Nao Thuok, director of the fisheries department at the Ministry of Agriculture. “The trade revenue was $5 million last year. If we could sell crocodiles for their skin, we could bring $10 to $15 million.”
Over the past several decades Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese traders have been purchasing hundreds of thousands of live, baby crocodiles from breeders in Cambodia. The crocs, sometimes only 1-week old and 2.5-cm long, are then raised in other countries for six or seven months before being resold, in most cases to China, for food, traditional medicine and skin.
Although the export of live crocodiles was specifically banned by Cambodia when it joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 2002, little has been done to stop the illicit export of baby crocs, breeders said.
“Most of the sales now are illegal,” Chhin Sokoun Theary said.
“The problem is the traders from Vietnam. They come to homes of small farmers and buy live crocodiles with no regard for the law. Also, it’s easy to smuggle. Farmers will put them in a small package or in the back of their car. In Cambodia, there is poor enforcement on illegal trade,” she said.
Now, according to industry experts, the market is flooded as neighboring countries have established their own breeding farms and prices are dropping dramatically.
Touch Seang Tana, a member of the Council of Ministers Economic, Social and Cultural Observer unit, agrees that there is no market for live crocodiles this year due to the steep decline in prices. He also questions the viability of marketing crocodile as a local delicacy as the recent closure of Phnom Penh’s only crocodile restaurant might attest.
“I believe that the domestic market has no demand for crocodile meat,” Touch Seang Tana said. “In the future there might be a market for crocodile meat for the Chinese tourists.”
Chhin Sokoun Theary has high hopes for the upcoming training seminar. She said it will be most beneficial if it can provide ideas on two fronts: How to form a “crocodile collective” that would set guidelines on pricing and industry standards, and how to properly raise crocodiles that can meet the insatiable international market for the reptiles’ skin.
“Our crocodile skins are not reaching international standard,” said Nao Thuok. “If we reach the standard, we won’t have to worry about the shortage of market demand.”
Chhin Sokoun Theary, who has traveled to the US and elsewhere to observe crocodile breeding, agrees that once the skin is marketable the future of crocodile farming is assured.
“Skin is in high demand,” Chhin Sokoun Theary said. “Now we should begin using international standards and techniques. Every crocodile from Cambodia should be labeled as being from Cambodia. As far as skin quality, Australian crocodile skin is the best and Cambodian crocodiles are second best.”
Rob Shore, a World Wildlife Fund program officer in Phnom Penh, explained that the crocodiles raised on Cambodian farms are actually a hybrid of the native Siamese crocodile and the much more common “estuary” crocodile.
They were originally hybridized to improve their growth rate and hide quality, he said.
Like many environmentalists, Shore is concerned with the farm-raised crocodiles’ impact on the dwindling population of native animals. In Thailand, where croc farming is widespread, the wild crocodile is virtually extinct.
“In theory, there is nothing wrong with farm-raising the species,” Shore said. “Crocodile farms can have a drain on wild populations if native species are purchased there. There is also an escape issue. If a captive or domestic animal is introduced to the wild it can dilute the genetic population and transfer disease.”
According to Shore, the biggest threat is that frustrated breeders will simply return unsold croc stock to the wild.
“As far as the next step [for conserving the native species], we really recommend that people don’t release them,” Shore said. “The natural species is nearly depleted. The numbers are extremely low, and only remnant scattered populations are left in the Cardamom Mountains.”
A future goal of the government and industry leaders is to establish a crocodile processing factory. Presently, there is no national facility to harvest the crocodile and prepare its skin for sale.
“We should have our own factory,” Touch Seang Tana said. “The government has been looking for investors, but as yet none has been found.”
Commander Crocodile is hardly content to wait.
Chhin Sokoun Theary, who started with a handful of baby crocodiles and no knowledge of the business, is now proposing her own $12 million, 27-hectare facility that will be equal parts processing plant, retail store and tourist attraction.
She plans to call it Crocodile Farm International and employ 500 local workers.
“I won’t run away from the crocodile market,” Chhin Sokoun Theary said. “I’ll find a way to slow down the price. This is my only skill. How could I run away?”