Binga, Zimbabwe – Basking in Zimbabwe’s northern Zambezi Valley, the Nile crocodile, Africa’s largest freshwater predator, is at ease in this hot and humid habitat.
Less comfortable, however, are the reptile farmers of Zimbabwe, who are dealing with increasing regional competition and challenges getting their products to market.
They are calling for government reforms to allow them to keep their lead against regional competitors.
According to a 2017 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, over two million crocodile skins are traded annually around the world.
After the United States, Zimbabwe ranks as the world’s second-largest exporter of the reptile products.
But operating in a challenging economic environment threatens the country’s trade of over 100,000 skins a year.
Mnangagwa, nicknamed Ngwena (“The Crocodile”) due to his crafty nature and role in the liberation struggle, rose to power last November following a military operation that saw Mugabe step down after 37 years in charge.
In a bid to woo back foreign investors, ‘the Crocodile’ assured potential investors at January’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, that Mugabe’s protectionist policies were a thing of the past. The post-Mugabe administration has made small steps to implement ease of doing business reforms, including speeding up business registration and the processing of exporter incentives.
However, key figures in the crocodile industry say more concrete reforms are required if the industry is to survive the competition.
Susan Childes, executive director of the Crocodile Farmers Association of Zimbabwe (CFAZ), told Al Jazeera that while Zimbabwe’s Nile crocodile products have dominated the market, other countries such as Zambia and Mozambique have entered the field over the past decade.
The increase of cheaper, high-quality leather worldwide has also raised the demand for superior products, increasing pressure of Zimbabwe’s producers to continue to improve their offerings.
“Market forces dictate price and price is based on quality. When there is an over supply in the market, prices drop.
“Those farms that can produce regular supplies of high-quality skins are more likely to create a good name for themselves in the marketplace and survive, compared to those who cannot reach the stringent quality requirements of the buyers,” she said in an email.
Compared with other countries in the region, high interest rates on loans and excessive duties on imported feed make it difficult to operate in Zimbabwe’s illiquid environment.
Arnold Britten, general manager of the country’s leading tannery, told Al Jazeera that there was a need for greater government incentives.
“Ninety percent of the crocodile business is exports, and a good portion of that business is made by attending fairs around the world, and countries like South Africa understand this. SA’s DTI [Department of Trade and Industry] gives a 50 percent refund to businesses for attending fairs overseas, and if we in Zimbabwe got something similar it’d be a big incentive to go out there and get more business,” he said in an interview.
However, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife spokesperson Tinashe Farawo describes crocodile farming as a “lucrative” and “brisk business” in which farmers must find their own feet.
“We can assist with export permits and other assistance to capacitate farmers, but we don’t provide markets for farmers. By nature, crocodiles are a high-cost venture, and the export business depends on the relationships one builds with other countries. Before Zimbabwe was not on good terms, but now the country is making a greater effort so farmers will benefit from this in future,” he told Al Jazeera.
Britten maintains that the government needs to offer more practical assistance to make it easier to do business, arguing that Zimbabwe’s high import duties on the chemicals and machinery required to process reptile skins should be scrapped.
His company, Zambezi Tanners, is the only major skin processor in the country. Located in the southern city of Bulawayo, the tannery services crocodile farmers from Zimbabwe and the region – including Zambia, Malawi and Mauritius – whose relatively small industries lack processing plants.
Processed and semi-processed hides from Zambezi Tanners are mainly headed for US markets where they sell for $350 to $550 a skin, depending on size and quality. Some are turned into handmade crocodile boots that sell for at least $1,500, while others are made into belts and furniture fittings.
Raw or processed skins from Zimbabwe’s other crocodile farmers are sold to suppliers for leading designer brands such as Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Gucci. Luxury handbags by these brands retail for at least $50,000 while belts go for $4,200.
While Zimbabwe’s Nile crocodile skins have earned fame on fashion catwalks and billboards around the world, the trade has also brought controversy.
A 2015 investigation by American animal rights campaigners, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) alleged animals were kept in overcrowded ‘concrete prisons’. PETA was highly critical of the slaughtering process, which can involve using a captive bolt gun or ramming a scalpel down a dead crocodile’s spine, saying they amounted to animal cruelty.
While local animal rights groups only monitor crocodiles in the wild and not those farmed along the Zambezi Valley, Hardwork Machakwa, deputy director general of veterinary services, dismissed the PETA report.
“That report is grossly false, and it seems there is a malicious motive because the footage doesn’t look like it’s a farm in Zimbabwe. I don’t know where those crocodiles come from, but that’s not a farm I know,” he told Al Jazeera.
Machakwa said the department conducts regular inspections and has the power to revoke a permit if a farm’s killing practices are not in line with international standards.
“There is heavy monitoring of the crocodile farming in this country, the welfare and slaughtering processes are inspected by officials and if a farm doesn’t meet the stringent mark it’s my duty to ensure that farmers get the required assistance to meet standard or withdraw the permit,” he said.
According to Britten, the raw hides are salted and fitted with a colour-coded number tag that ensures each skin can be traced back to its farm of origin. To use CITES tags, a ranch must comply with international regulators’ animal welfare and slaughter standards. The label is kept on the hide until it reaches the final export destination while the tannery or in-house farm processor retains a duplicate tag for five years.
Britten asserts that his company works to ensure they produce a quality product that is mindful of the slaughtered animal.
“An animal gave up its life, so the final product one makes must respect that, that’s the new motto we live by,” he quipped.
At the Binga Crocodile Farm overlooking Lake Kariba that separates Zimbabwe from Zambia, Anthony Sherren and Gilbert Rusamu – who are raising over 40,000 crocodiles – maintain that their ranch’s products meet the required CITES regulations.
“For every consignment we send it has to have a CITES permit and the [local] veterinary public health officer monitors the loading [of meat] to ensure we meet the required health standard,” he said.
Although crocodile products rank as one of Zimbabwe’s more lucrative exports, it is a niche industry for those with money or backing investors.
A few small-scale cooperatives have sprung up in the northern Zambezi Valley bordering Zambia and the south-eastern Lowveld where the hot, humid climate is ideal for crocodile rearing, but communal farmers face challenges in accessing local and external markets.
Considered an exotic meat, crocodile is not widely eaten, leaving the farms with a large surplus. In addition, the relatively high cost of a CITES export license – $800 a year – and a two percent CITES sales levy make it difficult for small players to enter the big leagues.
Despite the hurdles facing large and small crocodile traders, Britten believes Zimbabwe’s crocodile export industry is a viable enterprise with the potential to grow even bigger in an ideal environment.
“We’ll get there slowly if we build on what we have under the right [economic] conditions. If we are able to get where globally people are comfortable with Zimbabwe’s product, and we know we produce good quality skins then we can grow far much bigger than we imagine,” he said.