A Viva! Report on Crocodiles
by Kate Fowler
Crocodiles are the only living dinosaurs, the last remaining
members of the Class Archosauria, reptiles of the Mesozoic
era. Their ancestors lived around 200-65 million years ago,
alongside Tyranosaurus rex and the massive Brontosaurus.
They lived through the Cretaceous era when the dinosaurs
disappeared, survived the break up of the ancient world
when continents split and drifted across the globe and even
made it through the Ice Ages of the last 2 million years.
Amazingly, today's crocodiles are little different from
their prehistoric relatives but in the twentieth century
world of greed they face new and very real threats: habitat
destruction, legal hunting, poaching and entanglement in
fishing nets have all had an effect on the numbers left
in the wild. But at least they were in the wild. Now maximising
profits has become the global goal, ancient rights are disregarded
and the magnificent crocodile has become subjugated to the
horrors of the intensive farming system.
Crocodiles are fascinating creatures. Cold-blooded,
they rely on the sun to warm them and when it is too hot,
they use mud as a sun-screen to prevent dehydration. Surprisingly,
they are very sensitive to touch and become almost playful
when 'tickled' by another crocodile. Vigilant and dedicated,
crocodiles make excellent mothers and many will use the
same nesting site year after year. The mothers will remain
close to the nest, actively defending it when necessary
throughout the incubation period. For the eggs to hatch,
they must have been kept at a temperature between 27-34
degrees and temperature also determines the sex of the hatchlings.
With climatic changes affecting temperatures globally it
is a wonder that any survive at all.
Although crocodiles rarely move away from water their
eggs are laid in a nest on dry land. After laying, the female
will seal the nest to secure it from predators and will
keep vigil for the next 90 days. When the eggs hatch the
young will call for their mother who is on stand-by waiting
to dig them out. From here she will transport them to a
nursery pool where they will put into immediate practice
their innate hunting instincts. Creches are formed and although
the mothers may stay around for several months, one female
sometimes takes on the responsibility for looking after
a hundred or so hatchlings.
THE KILLING BEGINS
There are 23 species of world crocodilians and these
fascinating and astounding creatures have now been turned
into commodities worldwide. With the flourishing of the
skin trade in the 1950s and 60s many species, including
the Australian saltwater crocodile (C. porosus) were
hunted to the very brink of extinction. It is estimated
that between 270,000 and 330,000 Australian saltwater crocodiles
were killed between 1945 and 1972, 45,000 of which were
hatchlings, destined for the curio trade.1
In 1970 they became protected and a survey conducted
in 1979 showed only 2,000 non-hatchling saltwater crocodiles
in the whole of Western Australia. It is only in very recent
years that the numbers have slowly begun to rise again,
but the killing has already become a lucrative business.
It is the same worldwide. For example, in America, the Alligator
mississippiensis has been exploited since the 1800s,
almost becoming extinct in the 1960s and in South America
and the Caribbean islands, Crocodylus acutus has
been hunted beyond its rejuvenation ability. Today it remains
on the endangered list.
IN THE WILD
The Australian saltwater crocodile feeds on crustaceans,
fish, reptiles, birds and mammals. Courtship and mating
begin in the late dry season and nest-construction and egg-laying
occur during the wet. About 80 per cent of females nest
annually. The young grow slowly, with males reaching maturity
at about 3.4 metres and 16 years of age and females at 2.3
metres and 12 years. There is a high mortality rate due
to habitat destruction, hunting, flooding of nests, predators,
entanglement in fishing nets, illegal shootings, and high
temperatures. Furthermore, their habitat is constantly being
degraded by non-native, introduced herbivores. In a nutshell,
they suffer from the existence of humankind. Ironically,
we are quick to label them as dangerous to humans.
With so many problems to face, the probability of the
saltwater crocodile reaching adulthood has been estimated
at less than 1% and the Australian freshwater crocodiles
(C. johnstoni) don't fare any better. Instead of
making an effort to secure their habitat and ensure the
future of the species, this poor survival rate has become
justification to farm them "for their own good". Factory
farming crocodiles is exploitation, motivated purely by
financial interest, not the desire to conserve an ancient
The transfer of the two Australian species from CITES
(Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species)
Appendix I to II in 1986 had the effect of lifting the export
ban on crocodile skins and as a result farms began to flourish.
Today there are 18 crocodile farms in Australia alone and
the majority of skins and meat are exported. Farms are stocked
initially from the wild and some continue to replenish their
breeding and rearing stock with 'ranched' crocodiles. Ranching
is defined as 'the rearing in a controlled environment
of specimens taken from the wild, for the purposes of trade.'
2 Live crocodiles are captured and removed from their
natural habitat and it is perfectly legal as long as the
animals are taken in accordance with a management program.
The ranching restrictions that had been imposed by CITES
in 1970 due to the decline of Crocodylus porosus
were lifted again in 1994, allowing both saltwater and freshwater
crocodiles to be taken freely.
Dr K Hutchinson of the Captive Animal Protection Society
in Australia describes the horrifying ordeal crocodiles
are subjected to:
"They are captured in traps at night and hauled onto
the mudbanks where their jaws are clamped by a snare on
the end of a long pole. In its struggle to escape the
crocodile rolls over and over in the mud during which
time the heads are lacerated by the ropes. Its nostrils
are filled with mud and it cannot breathe until a hose
is sprayed onto its nostrils to remove the mud. Valium
is then injected for a 14-hour trip"
EGGS ARE TAKEN
Eggs can also be taken from the wild and incubated at
the farms and there is no limit to the number of eggs which
can be taken for this purpose. During a single night's work,
up to 600 eggs can be collected and once hatched the young
will be sent to various farms to live out their brief lives.
Some of these farm-hatched crocodiles can later be returned
to the wild for 'grow-out'. This saves on the feed and maintenance
bills and increases the number of crocodiles that can be
'Harvesting' is an innocuous term to mean 'killing in
the wild'. When asked about the value of killing wild animals
as opposed to relying on captive-bred stock, John Lever,
member of Queensland Crocodile Industry Group and owner
of Koorana Crocodile Farm at Rockhampton replied:
"Harvesting from the wild gives the crocodiles a conservation
value, the landowner also receives payment for looking
after and protecting the animals." 3
Once again, money is the motivating factor. Crocodiles
taken from the wild offer better profitability than those
from captive breeding as it takes 8-10 years before significant
returns are realised for the farmer.
Spokesperson for The People for the Ethical treatment
of Animals (PETA), Zoe Rappoport sums up the business -
'it is a senseless killing especially since conservationists
have worked so hard to bring them back.'
These are broadly defined as any animals which pose
a threat to humans or their livestock. There are certain
areas, such as Darwin Harbour and Nhulunbuy in the Northern
Territories where their very existence constitutes a 'problem'
and all crocodiles, regardless of species or size will be
removed or killed. While crocodiles have inhabited Australia
for millions of years it is only in the past 200 that they
have become a 'problem'. What arrogance allows white settlers
to encroach upon and destroy the crocodiles' natural habitat
and then slaughter them for being a 'problem'?
The authorities' policy for dealing with 'problem' crocodiles
"Whenever practicable they will be caught alive and taken
to crocodile farms... In those very rare situations where
live capture and transport are impractical, problem crocodiles
may be killed and, where practicable, products may be
salvaged from such killed animals."4
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR NUMBERS KILLED?
The harvest limits in Australia are set by CALM - the
Department of Conservation and Land Management. Limits and
regulations vary from state to state, although Queensland
is the only state which has a Code of Practice, emphasising
the welfare of the crocodile. The Conservation and Land
Management Act 1984 grants responsibility "for the conservation
and protection of fauna throughout the State" to each State's
CALM Department. Ironically, it is precisely from these
Departments that crocodiles need protecting.
Under the Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports
and Imports) Act 1982, limits are meant to take into account:
- current trends in population size and structure;
- seasonal effects in breeding and survivorship;
- management objectives for specific areas;
- proportion of the total habitat used for harvesting;
- review of previous harvests; and
- review of research information.
In Western Australia, all stock taken from the wild apart
from eggs and hatchlings are required to be individually
marked and logged. In other states these must be recorded
HOW MANY ARE TAKEN LEGALLY?
In 1995 in the Northern Territories, 15,000 viable C.
porosus eggs, 400 hatchlings, 400 juveniles, 200 adults
were taken. By 1996 the limits were raised to 15,000 eggs,
500 hatchlings, 500 juveniles and 400 adults.5 In
Western Australia, the official numbers are much less with
276 C. porosus and 45 C. johnstoni being taken
by August of that year.
Licensed farmers are required to keep detailed records
but accuracy of records is doubtful. According to CALM,
"Any discrepancies detected... will be investigated and
acted upon as considered appropriate." By this they
mean prosecution and the revoking of licenses. This may
act as deterrent for people with licenses to lose but what
about unlicensed shooters? The Australian authorities do
not know the extent of poaching. Pat O'Brien from the Wildlife
Preservation Society of Queensland states: "There are
strong penalties for poaching but very few patrol officers.
There would be little hope of a poacher getting caught."
Besides, it seems the anti-poaching authorities are
not free from corruption either. Sally Wilson from IFAW
Australia claims: "We even caught local wildlife authorities
trying to sell confiscated rare parrots through ads in the
paper!!! The problem is rampant and getting worse."
It is a lucrative business and with little chance of
being caught, the risks are seen as minimal. According to
Dick Smith, former deputy of US Fish & Wildlife Service
in Washington, trafficking in wild animals is the third
most lucrative contraband in the world after arms and drugs.
Smugglers forge certificates and officials privately say
that drug money is laundered through breeding farms.
It has been suggested that the illegal trade in crocodiles
may even be exacerbated by the 'controlled' legal trade
as it is far easier to detect illegal products when none
are allowed, than it is the illegal portion of a controlled
With poachers helping themselves, unreported entrapments
in fishing nets as well as legal killings, it is impossible
to put a number on crocodiles taken from the wild, no matter
how strict the authorities believe their regulations to
Live capture and transportation is undoubtedly stressful
for the animals involved. Only Queensland has a Code of
Practice which emphasises how easily crocodiles become severely
stressed both during and after capture. It also emphasises
the importance of appropriate handling with the correct
equipment to avoid possible injury or death. Yet no other
state has such a code and the code in Queensland doesn't
extend to crocodiles in captivity. Like the Code of Practice
relating to kangaroo shooters, it is impossible to enforce
The captured animal can be driven for up to 16 hours
to a farm, during which time their mouths are tied up and
the animals are sedated and wrapped in wet material to prevent
dehydration. The shock and trauma suffered is substantial
and that is before they are confined in an unnatural habitat
for the rest of their lives.
Not only does removing crocodiles from the wild upset
the natural population balance, it also means that wild
animals must somehow adapt to an artificial environment.
Crammed into tiny areas, all their social and behavioural
needs go entirely unrecognised. "In their natural environment,
crocs live in dark mangrove swamps, in secret places where
they can eat their prey bit by bit" says Sue Arnold,
from Australians for Animals, "In croc farms, there is
no place to hide, they are on view day and night." 6
Justification for overcrowding follows a bizarre logic.
Researchers at the Queensland Department of Primary Industries
have discovered that if 16 or fewer young stock are penned
together then the crocodiles may become territorial, but
if 20-40 are penned together then the animals will realise
the futility of fighting for space and aggression is minimised.
In this way, overcrowding is justified as being for the
'good' of the crocodiles.
In some farms their diet has been changed from the raw
meat that they would naturally eat to dry-feed pellet in
order to reduce costs. Researchers admit that they still
haven't done enough work to ensure the correct nutritional
composition of the pellets. Feed and 'fast' times are altered
to suit the producer and save labour and costs while still
achieving the maximum food-to-weight gain conversion rate.
According to the Australian and New Zealand Federation
of Animal Societies Inc. (ANZFAS): "Ways of curbing aggression,
an old war-horse of the intensive-farming industry are being
investigated as the industry seeks to increase production
and expand its market. Young animals are being produced
and 'sacrificed' purely for research purposes."7
Even skin colour is manipulated in an attempt to reduce
the inevitable aggression brought on by living in stressful
and overcrowded conditions. In their natural environment,
every crocodile has a value, in the farms 'runts' are 'culled'.
Crocodile farms have become little more than laboratories
But most worrying is that there is still no code of
welfare for captive crocodiles anywhere in Australia.
In America alligators, like their Australian cousins
are taken from the wild and displayed for entertainment
before being slaughtered for their meat and skin. By displaying
these animals as a tourist attraction before slaughtering
them profits can be maximised. "The most common image
of a crocodile farm is of numerous animals of different
sizes competing with one another for space around or in
a shallow pool. Alongside, but protected in some way are
crowds of tourists fascinated by the sight of these unique
primeval reptiles crammed into inappropriate and unnatural
In line with intensive farming practises, crocodiles
and alligators are kept in indoor confinement in heated
facilities to maximise growth and promote all-year-round
sales. They are fed on a steady diet of vitamin supplements
and antibiotics. In fact, their environment, diet, social
groupings and climate are all unnatural. The one natural
function that they are expected to fulfil in captivity is
breeding, but even then the eggs are taken away from these
wonderful nurturing mothers and incubated artificially.
Over time, any relationship to the animal in the wild is
Crocodiles and alligators are normally slaughtered at
just 3 years of age and slaughter can take a number of forms.
The quickest and cleanest method is by shooting, preferably
with a .22 calibre silenced rifle at point blank range as
this causes minimum stress and it can be carried out in
the animal's own enclosure. But shooting will inevitably
damage the skull which would otherwise have fetched a price
as a curio. The splintering of the skull also means that
some neck and jowl meat may be contaminated. As with any
unsupervised slaughter, time constraints and financial gain
will determine the method used. It remains perfectly clear
that money is the priority and the welfare of the animals
of very low concern. Allan Woodward of the Florida Game
and Fresh Water Fish Commission writes: "some alligator
facilities do not use firearms or captive-bolt pistols because
they damage skulls intended for sale."9 Once
again the animals pay the price for human greed.
Where shooting is disregarded for financial reasons,
slaughter can be by a number of extremely disturbing methods
such as the 'nape stab and pith'. One farm worker will stand
on the crocodile's head and another on its tail to immobilise
it. A wet, heavy material is placed over its eyes and its
head lowered. A sharp chisel is then forced between the
base of the skull and the first vertebrae to stun the animal.
When stunned, a rod of about 3mm in diameter is used to
probe and destroy the brain. According to a PETA enquiry,
workers at one Florida farm were described as "using
makeshift poleaxe devices, composed of hammers and chisels,
which they pounded into the alligators' spines in not-always
successful efforts to produce a "nape stab", or severance
of the animals' spinal structures."10 This method,
even when conducted by a skilled operator is less than efficient,
often taking between five and eight blows to sever the spinal
cord. And these are the recommended forms of slaughter.
Dr Clifford Warwick, Director of the Institute of Herpetology
in Worcester claims that "even when a skilled operator
is concerned the method is generally impractical and often
less than thorough." 11
In one American farm the horrific practise of bludgeoning
and knifing the alligators was caught on film. Alligators
targeted for slaughter were grabbed from their holding pools
and thrown into the killing area. A worker, armed with a
metal baseball bat bludgeoned the alligator's head, often
many times, in an effort to immobilise it. No constraints
were used, and when the blows failed to immobilise their
targets, the crippled alligators tried in vain to drag themselves
out of the striker's range. Without checking for signs of
consciousness, workers proceeded to stab the animals' necks
with switchblades. Even after being stabbed, a procedure
designed to kill the alligator, some could still be seen
making an effort to escape. According to Dr Clifford Warwick
these alligators still had nervous system function and were
sensible to 'physical insult and trauma' for as long as
53 minutes after being hacked.
Philip C. Arena, a specialist in herpetology from the
School of Veterinary Studies in Western Australia said:
"the video reveals slaughter at its worst. Haphazard, inefficient
stunning methods are employed on unrestrained alligators.
No clear steps are taken to minimise stress in animals,
reflecting a lack of concern for animal welfare issues.
. . I am compelled to label these procedures as nothing
short of cruelty to the animals and bad/dangerous practice
on behalf of the operators" 12
This farm holds a Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish
Commission permit under which they are required to meet
certain standards. Once their method of slaughter was exposed,
the farm claimed it hadn't realised that their actions were
illegal and agreed to change their method of slaughter.
The system here obviously failed as it repeatedly does when
any slaughter is conducted unsupervised.
Not content with farming and slaughtering crocodiles,
farmers worldwide have realised that displaying them is
a lucrative business in itself. Through holiday brochures,
Darwin Crocodile Farm boasts:
There are over 10,000 crocodiles on the Farm and
you can try a crocodile burger or buy a genuine crocodile
leather belt, bag or wallet - and have the satisfaction
of knowing it was bred right here.
Images of laughing cartoon crocodiles belie the misery
that these creatures must suffer.
According to Pat O'Brien from The Wildlife Preservation
Society of Queensland, underhand tactics have been employed
to promote the view that wildlife is there to be used. In
a letter to Viva!(Jan 1998) he says that the crocodile
industry has infiltrated the International Union for the
Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and taken over the Crocodile
Conservation Committee and this way have managed to get
support for the commercial use of wildlife.
In Australian farms, there are now too many crocodiles
for the existing market and so farmers are actively trying
to expand and create new markets for crocodile products
worldwide. The industry claims that there are 60,000 crocodiles
in farms in the Northern Territories alone, (plus around
60,000 in the wild) although other sources claim that the
figure is much higher. Whatever the exact figure, there
are too many crocodiles in these farms for the traditional
Asian markets. This is why the industry is attempting to
open up new markets in the UK and Europe and why we are
now faced with crocodile meat in our local supermarkets.
And it doesn't end there. The Australian crocodile industry
is now promoting flying foxes and bandicoots for export.
It is mass exploitation practised under the covert guise
The protection of crocodiles depends on the conferring
on them a commercial use. If there was no money to be made
crocodiles would not be protected at all. These fantastic
and primeval creatures with their prehistoric link to the
earth deserve to be marvelled at, to be revered, but ultimately
to be left alone in their natural habitat. Instead it is
yet one more creature to be condemned as a pest and to be
seen only as a means of money making.
There is a certain amount of hypocrisy from nations
like the UK who actively protest against whaling and yet
allow the slaughter of kangaroo, ostrich and crocodile.
Because we don't like to eat whales and other nations do
we condemn them yet we continue to exploit the wildlife
that we can and do eat. Animals are not carrots we dig out
of the ground or nuts we gather from trees. They are intelligent
beings capable of complex emotions and feelings. Despite
hundreds of generations of domestication, chickens still
have the instincts to nest, roost, dust-bathe and mother
their young even when they are not able to do these things.
Despite domestication, the distress the battery hen feels
when unable to find privacy is obvious. How much more distressing
must it be to be taken straight from the wild and forced
into an unnatural environment?
Ethicist, Peter Singer believes:
"To treat animals as resources, and argue about when
use is sustainable, is a classic example of economic rationalism
running heedlessly over non-economic values. We should
no more hand our wild animals over to the tender mercies
of the market than we should hand our children over to
the same market forces."13
This argument for the rights of each crocodile stands alone
and is separate from the concern that exploitation may push
some species to extinction. It is not the population we
are primarily concerned with, it is the individuals within
that species, individuals who have the capacity to feel
physical pain and suffer emotionally and who have every
right to live on the earth without being exploited for our
financial gain. Animals have evolved alongside us - in the
case of the crocodile, one might say they have rights even
greater than ours. Yet we continue to inflict pain and suffering
on this most magnificent animal in order to produce one
more meat we don't need.
1. Management Program for the Saltwater Crocodile and the
Freshwater Crocodile in Western Australia, 1996.
2. Western Australian Department of Conservation and
Land Management - Management Program for the Saltwater Crocodile
and the Freshwater Crocodile in Western Australia, January
3. Australian Farm Journal, March 1998.
4.Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Export and Imports)
5. Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory
- A Management Program for Crocodylus porosus & Crocodylus
johnstoni, December 1995.
6. Fax to Viva!, November 7th 1997.
7. The Status of Crocodile Protection in Commercial
Situations, ANZFAS, April 1997.
8. ANZFAS Submission to the Senate Standing Committee
on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, March 1997.
9. Letter to Dr Clifford Warwick, December 17, 1990.
10. Letter from PETA to Colonel Robert L. Edwards, Director
of the Division of Law Enforcement at the Florida Game and
Fresh water Fish Commission, March 12, 1996.
11. Letter from Dr Warwick to Dr Dennis David, Alligator
Management Program Coordinator, Florida, January 16th 1991.
12. Letter to PETA, August 14th 1995.
13. Peter Singer, The Ethics of Commercialising Wild
Animals, Sept 1995.