When Thailand made an unsuccessful push this year to remove Siamese crocodiles from the list of critically endangered species, it put forward what seemed like a fairly clear-cut rationale - there are almost a million of them in the country.
Although close to extinction in the wild, the reptiles are thriving in the country’s enormous network of crocodile farms. Wimol Jantrarotai, the chief of Thailand’s Department of Fisheries, says there are 700,000 Siamese crocodiles living on farms, although no more than 400 living in their natural habitats.
The attempt to have Crocodylus siamensis removed from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) list of species under the threat of extinction, and CITES' rejection of that effort, exemplifies a curious trend in the trade of rare fauna.
Many businesses are making a killing breeding and selling highly threatened species - but in a legal and, in a limited sense, sustainable way. This has resulted in a massive boost in the numbers of these creatures, yet most of them continue to be regarded by conservationists as too vulnerable to lift their protected status.
Yosapong Temsiripong, chairman of the Crocodiles Cooperatives of Thailand, estimates that the Siamese crocodile farming industry in his country alone is worth $168m.
With 836 farms registered with the authorities, Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of crocodile products, selling handbags, wallets, shoes, and clothing to countries like Japan, France, Italy, and Germany.
“They are an ideal farm animal - hardy, fecund, easy to maintain, feed on protein waste and have valuable skins and meat,” says Romulus Whitaker, who founded the Madras Crocodile Bank in India, Asia’s first crocodile breeding center.
Yosapong, who also runs Sriracha Moda, one of the country’s largest farms, says there are 10,000 breeder crocodiles in the country, churning out 200,000 babies a year. “Each mother can produce 20 babies a year, if you do things right,” he says.
“In farms, they can manage sizes, sexes, fertility periods, so there is a higher chance of conception than in the wild and they can feed crocodiles to be more fertile,” says Wimol. “The crocodile farming industry is a new form of crocodile conservation.”
Unfortunately for Thailand, this claim fell short at the CITES conference last March.
“One million baht ($33,500),” blushes the shopgirl at the Bangkok showroom of Yosapong’s company, when asked the price of the crocodile skin shawl on display at the front window. You can hear the hint of embarrassment in her laugh.
Behind the push to have the Siamese crocodile downlisted at CITES is the desire of both Thai farmers and the government to gain access to the lucrative US luxury market. Wimol and Yosapong estimate that attaining access to American consumers would double the local industry’s value.
While many European countries readily buy Siamese crocodile products provided they are derived from farm-bred animals, the US bans such imports from Thailand.
Shifting the crocs from CITES’ "Appendix I" list of critically threatened species down to "Appendix II" would ease trade restrictions, allowing Thai exporters to infiltrate the US cash cow.
But conservationists blocked the move, successfully arguing Siamese crocodiles are critically endangered until a viable population is reintroduced into its natural environment.
Given that farms are making income of this species, it would be a nice model to see them put their resources into recovery and better protection of the species in the wild.
“It can be a successful business, that’s not a problem,” says Chris Shepherd of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network that opposed the downlisting at CITES. “The problem is that currently the farming of Siamese crocodiles isn’t bringing them back in the wild.”
The conservationists and the farmers are not natural enemies. Many, like Whitaker, are both. Although Thailand has been farming crocodiles since after World War II, the industry really took off in the 1970s as a tool to help save the reptiles.
“This has led to a successful industry, but it has not been a success story for conservation,” says Paolo Martelli, vice-chair of the Crocodile Specialist Group’s veterinary science group.
“The wild population is still critically endangered, more than they were when the farms were established. So farms asking to lift the ban when the species is worse off, that doesn’t make sense. We're very impressed that you have a million in the farms, but it hasn’t accomplished its mission of conserving the crocodile in the wild.”
Conservationists aren’t just clamoring for the preservation of animals in the wild as a matter of principle. There are pragmatic considerations, including the fear that a wholly farmed species could be perilously inbred.
“A wild species has an ecological function when it is out in its habitat eating other species, being eaten, influencing the density of prey and competing species, culling out the weak and sick,” says Whitaker. “For example, wolves keep elk on their toes, letting woodlands grow. Remove wolves and keep them alive in captivity, the elk populations boom, and the habitat becomes a savanna. Besides, captive wolves are not self-sustaining; they can survive only if humans feed them.”
“Let me give you an analogy,” says Martelli. “How many millions of Palestinians are there in the world? Would you still say Palestine is thriving? ... For all purposes, they are a bit like refugees. The farming community is not a viable biological context.”
Yosapong says farmers plan to introduce more baby crocodiles into the wild in phases, in what is known as head-starting. Thailand has already introduced 20 babies into the wild in the past few years, and Yosapong pledges “many, many more” will be released over the next few years.
“Given that farms are making income of this species, it would be a nice model to see them put their resources into recovery and better protection of the species in the wild,” says TRAFFIC’s Shepherd.
Still, Whitaker warns against placing too much hope in head-starting. “There is a ‘false promise’ aspect to it,” he says. “The act of releasing crocs back to the wild is a very sexy and photogenic conservation ploy, but what is often ignored is what the state of the wild habitat is or will become. In India, the rivers are in worse shape than ever and not getting any better thanks to dams, pollution, water extraction, sand mining, and interlinking.”
Poaching is another major concern for conservationists, who say easing trade restrictions on endangered species would ramp up pressure on the few survivors in the wild.
Both Wimol and Yosapong dismiss poaching threats.
“Farmed crocodiles are easier to find and they have better skin quality,” says Wimol. “Most importantly, Thai crocodile breeders know how precious wild crocodiles are.”
“The problem is that the poachers and the farmers aren’t the same people,” Martelli counters. “The farmers are probably having trouble getting rid of all the ones they have. But if you’re a poacher, you’re a guy who never has $10, if you catch one and you have a friend in the industry it’ll get laundered into the system. Because the wild population is so depleted, even a few being killed matters.”
“For the Thai representatives to even consider Siamensis [for downlisting] is kind of ridiculous, really,” adds Colin Stevenson, director of the Madras Crocodile Bank. “We could then have had the absurd situation of a species being downlisted and soon after becoming extinct in the wild in that country.”
Yosapong, though, suspects a more venal motive behind the rejection of Thailand’s bid at CITES.
“The effort failed because of the US,” he claims. “Our crocodile products are good quality, but cheap, and they wanted to protect the domestic market for their own American alligator industry.”