Growing international and domestic demand for crocodile products, coupled with the government’s ban on sale of game meat in 2004, which spared only crocodile and ostrich meat, has seen the number of commercial crocodile farms now rise to 70 according to the Ministry of Agriculture, with the majority concentrated in Mombasa.
Almost every part of a crocodile holds commercial value. The hotels, restaurants, exotic beach resorts and popular night clubs that buy the meat directly from crocodile farms form the primary customers, with experts reporting that crocodile meat has higher nutritional value than beef and pork and lower fat than chicken. The ban on other game meats has extended demand for the meat.
But crocodile is actually a portfolio of products in one.
Crocodile skins are bought by the leather and fashion industries to make luxury leather goods such as belts and handbags. A good quality crocodile leather bag can fetch $50,000 to $55,000, with clients even willing to wait two to three years for delivery.
Crocodile teeth are used to make necklaces or ornaments, while charcoal made from crocodile bones is indispensable to the global perfume industry, and crocodile oil is used in making beauty cream and is said to help relieve the symptoms of ringworm and respiratory ailments.
So lucrative is the set that the government is now encouraging farmers to move into crocodile farming, providing long-term loans to purchase land and rear the animals, and entrepreneurs targeting exports even to neighbouring countries. "I want to one day export the products to Ghana or DR Congo," explains crocodile farmer Karanja Njoroge. "With time, new strategies will come into place. Australia and India are already two of the biggest markets for the meat."
James Kagendo of Baobab Crocodile Farm in Mombasa says they set up the farm with the aim of exporting over 5,000 crocodile skins a year and earning up to $5m by 2015.
Buyers from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, Japan, Singapore and China have all approached the farm for skins, and it is edging towards that target, but demand is always outstripping supply.
The breeding of crocodiles, and export of its productsm are subject to approval by the minister responsible for wildlife and accreditation under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement between governments that aims to ensure that trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival, and which accords protection to more than 33,000 species of animals and plants mincluding crocodiles.
Qil crocodile skins produced in Kenya are exported with CITES permits that use the source code “R”.
Beyond the administration involved in getting permits, other handicaps on output are the needs for delicate handling of the crocodile eggs and for feeding the crocodiles as they grow.
Although some of the ranched crocodile stock in Baobab crocodile farm are bought as baby crocodiles and tended by the farm, around 60 per cent of the crocodiles are reared from eggs collected from river banks including along the River Tana, which is a breeding ground for the crocodiles. The farm seeks the help of the locals in collecting the eggs and identifying the perfect timing for the egg collection.
The eggs are then brought to the farm where they are hatched and incubated. The hatchlings are raised in captivity and later put in ponds.
"The locals who assist us in egg collection are very well versed in the crocodile breeding patterns, the manner in which they hide their eggs and how to get them without being attacked,” said Mr Kagendo.
However egg transportation is one of the most delicate exercises in the entire crocodile rearing and breeding process. The bumpy ride from the river to the farm means that the eggs will be shaken which disturbs embryo development resulting in different forms of disability in the crocodiles.
In Baobab farm, a small disabled baby crocodile the size of an adult lizard crawls into a pond of water, its sluggish body struggling to keep up with the fast pace of other able-bodied reptiles.
The baby crocodile, now three-months-old, was born with multiple disabilities on its spine caused by improper handling of its egg when it was taken from River Tana.
Its head is attached to its left leg and its spine is horribly twisted, but according to the farm owners, it has the right to live like any other crocodile. Its sex has not yet been determined. There are five small crocodiles with similar disabilities in the pond. “We will not kill the disabled baby crocodiles, but will let fate choose their destiny," said Mr. Kagendo.
Baobab has six ponds where it houses crocodiles grouped according to their age and growth patterns, and although the sale of the mature ones delivers impressive returns, feeding the crocodiles is a high cost.
The crocodiles rely on goat meat and fish. One goat costs the farm Sh2500 and means the farm must spend more than Sh100,000 a week to feed the crocodiles their big meals. The daily rations also include ‘snacks’ of fish and other meats. Said Kagendo: “limited food resources might force us to sell crocodiles while they are still small meaning we incur losses.”
Crocodiles are commercially farmed in 40 countries, including China, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, but the nascent producer association, the Crocodile Producers Association of Kenya (CPAK), now hopes to turn Kenya into a fully fledged commercial producer in a market that the World Wildlife Fund [WWF] in its trade in wildlife report estimates as covering 50 million products a year made from reptiles, with a declared value of up to $500m globally.
Written By Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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