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 species.
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 'harvested' later.
'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 is this:
"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 as well.
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 legal trade.
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 be.
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 anyway.
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 surrounds." 8
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 gradually eroded.
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 of conservation.
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 1996.
3. Australian Farm Journal, March 1998.
4.Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Export and Imports) Act 1982.
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.