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FAO assistance in crocodile management efforts

S. Dembner

Stephen A. Dembner is the editor of Unasylva.

This article briefly describes a number of FAO-assisted efforts in crocodile management.

Crocodiles are one of the few life forms which have remained virtually unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. Until the early 1950s, they were numerous in the tropics of Africa, the Americas, Asia and Australia. In recent years, however, crocodile habitats have come under increasing pressure as forest lands are cleared for agricultural and industrial uses, and swamps and rivers are drained or altered by the construction of dams for irrigation and hydro electric power. This, combined with unregulated hunting of crocodiles for their valuable skins, has brought most species of crocodiles to the brink of extinction. In addition, crocodiles have often been killed simply because people do not like them, the result of an exaggerated mythology which blames them for attacks on people, domestic animals and fish stocks. In fact, most crocodiles never attack human beings or larger domestic animals and, for their size, eat relatively little.

Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), measures were introduced to control international trade of all species of crocodile. This aided conservation efforts by regulating the marketing of skins for export.

However, the crocodile trade provided a vital source of income for rural people living in or near crocodile habitats. This presented governments with the classic problem of how to develop a system to conserve a resource through wise use.

As the leading international agency for food and agriculture, including forestry and fisheries, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is concerned with the protection, management and utilization of natural resources-including wildlife-within the context of rural development. For nearly 20 years, the Forest and Wildlands Conservation Branch of FAO's Forestry Department has assisted national and international efforts aimed first at ensuring the conservation of crocodile resources; and second at promoting the management and sustained utilization of the resource for the benefit of rural people and to generate foreign exchange.

India: saving the gharial

A GHARIAL RAISED IN CAPTIVITY being released In a protected area in Orissa, India

Crocodile hunting was banned in India in 1972, but by that time all three species found in the country (the gharial, Gavialis gangeticus; the saltwater crocodile, Crocodylus porosus; and the mugger or marsh crocodile, C. palustris) were on the verge of extinction (Bustard, 1974). Ironically, it was the gharial, which is completely harmless to man and of relatively low value in terms of its hide, which was most endangered. Stabilization of river banks and dam construction had greatly reduced the gharial's natural environment of free-flowing rivers. In addition, the increased use of nylon fishing nets resulted in the accidental ensnaring and drowning of many gharials. When India requested FAO's help in developing a plan to protect the crocodiles in 1973, it was estimated that fewer then 100 individuals continued to survive in the wild in India. While larger numbers of saltwater crocodile and mugger were known to exist, they were not enough to avoid the total extinction of the species in the short-term future.

First priority was therefore given to ensuring continuity of the species. Under a project funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), FAO recruited a crocodile expert. Over a 12-week period, the consultant and government counterparts travelled in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Rajasthan to identify remaining populations and suitable habitats for repopulation. Based on the results of these study tours, the Indian Government decided to establish a gharial-raising farm in Orissa. Once the site was selected, FAO assisted government wildlife workers to design and construct special rearing stations. FAO also helped to train local villagers in the collection of gharial eggs from the wild. This was especially important since improper collection could have resulted in the destruction of the last remaining gharial nesting sites.

Crocodiles: a brief guide

Crocodiles are the largest surviving species of the vertebrate class Reptilia, and are one of the last living links with the age of the dinosaur.

Most taxonomists divide the present-day crocodiles into three families: alligators and caymans (Alligatoridae), found primarily in the subtropics of the Americas; true crocodiles (Crocodylidae), found throughout the tropical regions of the world; and gharials (Gavialidae), found only in southern Asia. In total, there are 21 known species in existence today. Except for one saltwater species, crocodiles live mainly in freshwater swamps, lakes and rivers.

CROCODILE EGGS collected in the wild by local people for captive raising

Like all reptiles, crocodiles breathe air and are poikilothermic, i.e. able to regulate their body temperature only to a limited degree. They are basically nocturnal animals; during the day they tend to lie in the sun on land, periodically withdrawing to the water or to shaded areas to avoid overheating. With the onset of darkness they become more active and spend nearly all of their time in the water. The eyes, the nostrils and the ear openings are the highest parts of the upper side of the head and thus remain above the water surface even when the rest of the crocodile is submerged.

All crocodiles reproduce by means of white, hard-shelled eggs, approximately the same size as those of chickens or geese. Depending on the species, the female excavates a nest in the sand or prepares a mounded nest of vegetation and deposits a clutch of 20-70 eggs once a year. A mother crocodile may guard her nest devotedly against predators, but she does not incubate in the sense of providing extra warmth. After an incubation period of 6090 days, the baby crocodiles are ready to hatch and from inside the eggs they begin to make squeaking sounds that can be heard even though a crust of earth 30 cm deep, at a distance as great as 4 m.

The young crocodiles grow rapidly, increasing in length by an average of nearly 30 cm per year. Sexual maturity is reached at an age of approximately 8-10 years, after which growth slows but continues throughout the life cycle. The maximum possible length or age is not known but crocodiles have lived in captivity for more than 50 years, and many examples have reached lengths of more than 6 m.

Over a breeding lifespan of some 50 years a female gharial may produce as many as 2500 eggs, but in the wild a mortality rate of over 90 percent in the first three years of life is common. In the hatcheries, however, mortality was reduced to less than 30 percent. Once the crocodiles reach a length of approximately one metre, they have no natural enemies save one-the human being (de Vos, 1982).

By the time the project ended in 1982, more than 1000 gharials had been raised and released into protected areas or sanctuaries, increasing the total population more than tenfold. Local fishermen living within these sanctuaries have been employed as guards. The salary paid to the fishermen is more than that offered by poachers for assistance in locating crocodiles, and since poaching is virtually impossible without the active or at least tacit cooperation of local people, this has resulted in effective protection (FAO, 1983).

Similar schemes were also implemented for collection and raising of saltwater crocodile and mugger from eggs. More than 20 crocodile-raising stations have been established in ten states and sufficient populations have now been established to ensure survival of the species and even to permit consideration of the development of commercial crocodile-rearing farms in which the animals can be raised- in captivity for their valuable hides. Under such a scheme local villagers could be provided with eggs or young crocodiles in order to establish small-scale rearing operations as an additional source of income. However, present legislation in India does not permit the commercial exploitation of crocodiles. At present, the only practical utilization of the supplementary crocodiles is an exchange programme with the Government of Pakistan for other endangered wildlife species. Expanded utilization would be dependent on legislative revision.

Papua New Guinea: Developing a crocodile-skin industry

In Papua New Guinea, swamps and wetlands cover a significant portion of the land area. In most of these areas the possibilities for economic development are limited. In many cases crocodiles constitute one of the only saleable resources. As a result, in the past, crocodiles had been exploited as a wild cash crop, which seriously depleted the resource. In addition, destruction of breeding-size animals, sale of undersized skins, poor skin preprocessing and inadequate marketing operations had combined to create a wasteful and declining industry (Bolton, 1978).

CROCODILE EGGS hatch after an incubation period of 60-90 days

In the early 1970s, the Government banned trade of skins of more than 51 cm belly width (corresponding to an overall length of approximately 2 m) in an attempt to protect crocodiles of breeding age. It also started a series of small-scale schemes for rearing crocodiles in captivity. Although more than 100 village rearing establishments were developed, most encountered serious problems. Extreme seasonal variations in water level left the rearing pens flooded during certain parts of the year and too dry in others. The pumps required to maintain a constant water level were beyond the economic means of most villagers, or at least made crocodile rearing less profitable than hunting in the wild.

The Government requested help from FAO and in 1977 a three-year project was initiated with funding from UNDP. Through the project, crocodile-rearing operations were concentrated on medium- and large-scale commercial farms. The small-scale village operations were converted into crocodile collection stations. Local villagers were paid a government-set fee to collect young live crocodiles in the wild which were then transported to the commercial rearing stations. At the same time, the Government banned trade of skins of less than 18 cm belly width. Since the government price for the live young was higher than that paid by traders for the skins of these small crocodiles, poaching was effectively reduced.

In 1976, approximately 30000 skins were exported with an average belly width of 20 cm and a total value of less than US$1.0 million. In 1982, the average width of the 29584 skins which left the country was more than 28 cm and the estimated export value was US$2.75 million (FAO, 1981).

FAO also provided training to improve the process of skinning and wet-salting crocodile hides for export, thereby increasing the number of top-quality skins. The establishment of a crocodile tannery was considered but rejected for two main reasons. First, the distance between Papua New Guinea and the major European markets for crocodile skins would have made it extremely difficult for the tannery to keep abreast of fashion trends or to compete with established European tanneries. Second, employment opportunities would have been extremely limited in relation to the capital investment required.

Based on the success of the Papua New Guinea project, the Japanese Government in July 1986 provided trust funds to finance an FAO-assisted project in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, situated on the eastern portion of the island of New Guinea. The project is aimed et establishing a crocodile rearing industry based on sound management techniques so as to ensure the perpetuation of the resource as a revenue source for local people and for the Government.

By the end of 1989, four large commercial crocodile farms had been established, and several others are in various stages of development. For example, at Dabra there are three crocodile rearing operations, one of which, P.T. Reptilindo Ekapratama, currently has nearly 4000 crocodiles. Good records and stock cheeks indicate that the animals are healthy and that their skins are in good condition (Mitchell, 1988).

The largest crocodile farm, Bintang Mas located at Jayapura, has more than 7500 crocodiles. Recently the farm has embarked on a joint venture with a French company which will enable the local processing of skins with machinery and techniques that will ensure significantly higher value on the international market, and responsiveness to the rapidly changing requirements of the high fashion industry (Corten, 1989).

An important part of the Irian Jaya project is the generation of income for local people. Perhaps the best example of this is in Pagai, a village of fewer than 250 people, on the Upper Mamberamo river. Like many villages in the interior of Irian Jaya, it takes several days by canoe and ground travel to reach a major town, and its main link with the rest of the province is its small airstrip. Until recently virtually the only source of income was from crocodile hunting on behalf of illegal skin dealers who paid the local people pitifully low rates and encouraged them to kill adult crocodiles wastefully.

IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA the crocodile is of such historic and economic importance that its image is reproduced on this coin

Under the trust fund project the villagers have switched from hunting adult crocodiles to catching live young and keeping them in holding pens built from low-cost, locally available materials. Once they have accumulated enough for a plane load, the small crocodiles are sold to one of the big, commercial farms in Jayapura. In a one-year period, the villagers supplied about 1000 small crocodiles and earned about US$10000. They have established a crocodile cooperative called Koperasi yarui, the local name for the freshwater crocodile. Each of the village hunters gives 10 percent of his earnings to the cooperative, which ensures fair prices for the crocodiles and supplies of needed inputs. The money generated by the cooperative has also permitted the building of a school, a medical post and a church (Whitaker, 1988).

The project also includes a major research and training component to ensure that when external funding is terminated, the Directorate of Nature Conservation will be able to continue and expand the crocodile programme effectively.

Ethiopia: managing crocodile resources

The Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) is widely distributed in the southern half of Ethiopia. Despite heavy hunting pressure in the 1960s, viable populations have survived in the more inaccessible rivers and lakes. On lakes Abaya and Chamo in the Rift Valley, for example, there are concentrations of crocodiles unsurpassed in Africa.

The concept of captive rearing of crocodiles in Ethiopia is not new; the National Wildlife Conservation Organization has followed the progress of crocodile management schemes developed in other parts of the world since the-early 1970s. However, uncertainty about the status of the resource and a lack of practical experience impeded the development of any significant efforts. In 1982, however, based on the clear successes of other programmes, including those discussed above and a national effort in Zimbabwe, the Government requested help from FAO in assessing wild crocodile resources and in identifying ways of deriving sustainable economic benefits from them (Bolton, 1986).

With financing from FAO's Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP), a reconnaissance study was carried out in the Rift Valley. The study found that the number of crocodiles had significantly increased since the 1970s and that the population was high enough not to be endangered by the collection of eggs or young for a commercial raising scheme. The study also found that Lakes Abaya and Chamo contain some 20 species of fish, less than one-quarter of which are taken for human consumption. The remaining species, the study determined, could effectively be used for crocodile food The waste produced during the filleting of the commercially valuable species of fish (nearly 50 percent of total live weight) could also be used for crocodile food. The TCP funding also permitted three Ethiopian technicians to visit and study the highly successful Spencer's Creek crocodile farm in Zimbabwe.

Based on the conclusions and recommendations of the TCP project, the Government acquired a site at Arba Minch on the edge of Lake Abaya and constructed a hatchery and enclosures for one-year-old crocodiles. Additional external assistance was requested for full development of the rearing station and for management training. In July 1985, an 18-month project executed by FAO with funding from UNDP, was approved. Under the project, the hatchery and rearing facilities were brought up to a capacity of more than 4000 hatchlings.

However, low-cost feed supplies proved to be inadequate as a planned fish processing enterprise (from which the waste and offal were to be used for crocodile food) has still not been established, because adequate external funding has not materialized. In the interim, fish from Lake Abaya are being shipped whole to Addis Ababa and processed there. As a result, crocodile food has had to be purchased, making the maintenance of a large stock economically unfeasible (FAO, 1988). Until completion of the fish processing plant, crocodiles are being sold at a very early age to other countries interested in building up crocodile rearing enterprises.

This momentary setback notwithstanding, the project has effectively demonstrated that commercial crocodile farming could indeed be successful in Ethiopia, without damaging the natural resource base. In anticipation of a rapid resolution to the feed issue, in October 1989 the Government prepared a submission for presentation to CITES and was allocated an annual quota for crocodile skin exports.


As the potential of crocodile resources to generate sustainable income at both local and national level has become increasingly recognized, the number of requests received by FAO from Member Governments for assistance in this area as a part of overall wildlife management efforts has also increased. Over the past 15 years, FAO has provided direct assistance in crocodile management to some ten countries in all regions of the developing world, and advice or information to several others. New crocodile management projects have recently been initiated in Somalia and Madagascar. In addition, FAO cooperates actively with the Crocodile Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. While crocodile resources are by no means out of danger on a global scale, FAO assistance has demonstrated that, with a strong government commitment, major strides can be made even with relatively small investments and over a relatively short time span, contributing to conservation of the resource base and at the same time enhancing the well-being of local people.


Bolton, M. 1978. Crocodile farming in Papua New Guinea. Oryx, 14(4):365-369.

Bolton, M. 1986. Crocodile farming in Ethiopia. Report on a consultancy. FO: DP/ETH/84/009. Field document. Addis Ababa, FAO.

Bustard, H.R. 1974. A preliminary survey of prospects for crocodile farming. FO: IND/71/033. Rome, FAO.

Corten, J. 1989. Report on duty travel to Jakarta and Irian Jaya, Indonesia, 26 June 6 July 1989. (Unpublished)

de Vos, A. 1982. An evaluation of the UNDP/FAO crocodile breeding and management project in India. FO: IND/74/046. Rome, FAO.

FAO. 1981. Assistance to the crocodile skin industry. FO: DP/PNG/74/029. Terminal report. Rome.

FAO. 1983. Crocodile breeding and management in India. Project findings and recommendations. FO: DP/IND/74/046. Terminal report. Rome.

FAO. 1988. Crocodile farming in Ethiopia. FO: DP/ETH/84/009. Terminal statement. Rome.

Mitchell, G. 1988. Report on a consultancy covering commercial aspects of crocodile farming in Irian Jaya. GCP/INS/060/JPN. (Unpublished draft)

Whitaker, R. 1988. Report on a consultancy on crocodile husbandry and management in Irian Jaya, Indonesia. GCP/INS/060/JPN. (Unpublished draft)

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