battambang province – With prices plummeting to new depths, more of Cambodia’s crocodile farmers are beginning to look elsewhere for a living.
Prices for baby crocodiles are currently as low as $8 in Battambang, down from up to $50 three years ago and down from $16 last year, farmers in the province said.
Full-grown female crocodiles, which once fetched up to $5,000 per head, can now be bought in Battambang for as little as $500.
There is no future in the business, according to Nuon Chhorvy, 48, who has run a farm in Battambang town for 20 years.
“There is more money to be made investing in land these days,” she said in an interview late last month.
There are around 1,000 crocodile farms in Cambodia, with conservative estimates of the numbers of farmed crocodiles at 150,000 nationwide, according to Nao Thuok, director of the fisheries board at the Ministry of Agriculture.
Crocodile farming grew rapidly in Cambodia from the late 1990s, with most located in Siem Reap, Battambang, Kompong Thom and Kompong Chhnang provinces.
Nao Thuok says that is part of the problem.
“Too many people are farming crocodiles like they are chickens. It is crowding the market…. There is a future in crocodile farming, just not for everyone. We need a small number of big farms around the country with the right facilities,” said Nao Thuok, who himself owns a large crocodile farm in Siem Reap.
“The market for crocodiles internationally is for skin. The problem in Cambodia is that the farmers are not taking care of that,” he said, adding, “they sell the crocodiles far too young.”
Businessmen in Singapore are now choosing to import crocodile skins from the US and the Caribbean because they are better quality, Nao Thuok said.
Whatever the reason, the market, which Nao Thuok says is worth around $5 million a year, has been stretched to the extent that several farmers say they are losing money by selling at current prices.
Having once owned 1,000 crocodiles, Nuon Chhorvy now has 400 and plans to get out of the business altogether.
“The problem is that the price of crocodiles is getting cheaper. I have bought crocodiles for $60 and fattened them for three years and then only sold them for $40.”
Nuon Chhorvy doesn’t know the reason for the drop. Businessmen, mostly Thai and Vietnamese, used to come and buy from her directly, but their numbers have dwindled.
Since 1997, she said, the price has fluctuated, but for the last two years it has only gone down.
Prices for baby crocodiles rose from $25 to $35 in 2001, maintaining a price of between $30 to $50 for the next two years, before the current slump, she said.
With the bill for fish and meat as high as $4,000 or $5,000 a year, Nuon Chhorvy says she is lucky to break even.
“I am just waiting for the price to improve even a little and I will sell all of my crocodiles. At current prices I would lose too much money.”
Nuon Chhorvy, whose family also owns a construction firm, says she was one of the first to take up crocodile farming in the area. “I am not suffering too much [from the market slump] as it is not our only income. But there are others who have put everything into farming crocodiles and they are in real trouble.”
Chan Khieng, 38, who has a farm in Battambang’s Sangke district, echoes her story.
“Feeding crocodiles these days is no good as no one wants to buy them,” he said.
Hay Rin, 27, has 50 crocodiles on her farm in Ek Phnom district. “I want to sell what I have and buy land, but I can’t as the price [of crocodiles] is so low,” he said.
According to Choueng Sophea, deputy director of Battambang’s fishery office, officially registered crocodiles in Battambang province number 10,000. But he said the real number could be 10 times that.
In Siem Reap, Chan Phall, who has 700 full-grown female crocodiles, says the problem is the same.
“No businessmen are coming to buy the big crocodiles, although I want to sell” he said by telephone.
Though the market has crashed, Chan Phall says he will keep on farming and hopes it rises again.
“I will continue to feed them as they have [previously] benefited me financially,” he said.
In Nuon Chhorvy’s backyard, three pits, with small water pools and birthing areas contain hundreds of crocodiles, some of them over two meters in length.
“The crocodiles only cost money now,” said Vong Chiva, Nuon Chhorvy’s 25-year-old daughter.
“But my mother continues to feed them as much as ever because she feels sorry for them.”