As recently as the l950s, crocodiles were abundant in Papua New Guinea. Hunting was a major occupation and was unrestricted. Some Australians and Europeans made fortunes by shooting thousands of crocodiles a year to make shoes and handbags in Europe and North America.
Although it was obvious that wild populations could not sustain such wholesale slaughter, the destruction continued. By 1967 both the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) and the freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus novaeguineae) were threatened with extinction. By 1968, despite increased hunting, the yield of skins had dropped in half; along the easily accessible river systems, crocodile populations had been wiped out. By 1969 the saltwater crocodile had disappeared from much of its range throughout the country, and wildlife officers estimated that without protection most specimens of breeding size would be eliminated within five years.
But how could crocodiles be protected? Papua New Guinea is divided by mountain ranges, ravines, torrential rivers, forests, seas, malarial swamps, and more than 700 languages. It would take hundreds of trained wildlife officers to enforce a ban on crocodile hunting, particularly in the face of opposition from tribesmen who have traditionally harvested crocodiles for food, decorative items, and implements.
The challenge was given to the officers of the Wildlife Division. Under the leadership of Max C. Downes, these officials concluded that the best way to protect crocodile populations was to halt the slaughter of the large breeding adults and build up a new hide industry based on the increased numbers of young that would result.
Few young crocodiles ever reach breeding age in the wild. The tiny, virtually defenseless hatchlings are easy prey for large fish, birds, or other crocodiles. Almost all of them are killed by predators or by other natural causes, such as floods..
Main areas of crocodile distribution in Papua New Guinea.
What was needed, the wildlife officers concluded, were incentives to make these smaller animals economically attractive, incentives to encourage local people to raise small crocodiles to commercial size. If that could be accomplished, hundreds of hatchlings that would normally perish could be utilized without endangering the wild populations' future. Villagers could benefit by selling skins while the vital breeding-sized animals were being left alone to provide more hatchlings. The system could benefit both the villagers and the vulnerable crocodile populations.
The idea was viable partly because many Papua New Guineans - particularly those of the Sepik and Fly Rivers - have ancient spiritual and cultural attachments to crocodiles. To them, the idea of handling and managing the animals is not unusual. Crocodile motifs are common in their art and they live in harmony with the big beasts and do not consider them dangerous pests to be eliminated.
Legislation passed by the Papua New Guinea government in 1969 capitalized on this tradition by making the villagers themselves the real force in crocodile protection. The law did not ban crocodile hunting, but instead banned the possession, sale, and export of skins larger than 20 inches (51 cm) wide. In this way, it protected breeding-sized animals while allowing for the harvest of juveniles. It also allowed a person to kill a crocodile if attacked (but barred the selling of the skin, if it were oversized).
In 1980, the legislation was supplemented by a law banning the export of small skins. Together, the bans on possessing large skins and exporting small skins have created a stimulus for gathering small crocodiles from the wild and rearing them to moderate size on farms. The legislation has been the impetus for crocodile farming.
Crocodile farming officially started in Papua New Guinea in 1972. In the late 1970s, it was extensively supported by a UNDP/FAO assistance program that provided personnel and funds for technical support and program management. Today there are about 300 small village farms (The numbers vary, since some villagers go in and out of production depending on their need for income, seasonal variation in river levels, the cost of fuel, and the availability of government extension agents) supplying a number of larger business groups that rear crocodiles.
Wildlife officers now teach crocodile farming, not crocodile conservation per se. They have introduced crocodile-rearing techniques to villagers all over Papua New Guinea. They help build pens and teach tribesmen how to care for the young reptiles, which are so vulnerable and timid that they can literally die of fright.
Government loans of up to US$10,000, along with matching development bank loans, are available to help a farmer enter the crocodile farming business. The funds pay for pumps for changing the water in the pens and sometimes for an outboard motor used in gathering young crocodiles. Everything else a villager needs can be obtained from the forest, including materials for pen construction; a small farm can therefore be established inexpensively.
The Three Types of Farms
The government's crocodile management program recognizes three levels of operation: village farms (up to 300 crocodiles), small-business farms (up to 1,000 crocodiles), and large-business farms (more than 1,000 crocodiles).
A village crocodile farm consists of a small pen fenced with posts lashed together with vines. This stockade fence is about 1.5 m high and is sunk about 60 cm in the ground so the crocodiles cannot burrow out. Much of the enclosure is planted with grass, cassava, and banana trees to provide secluded areas where the animals, which regulate their body temperature by the warmth of the sun, can find shade. A shallow pool is excavated in the center.
These village farms are usually run by only one or two people. Many are little more than pens scattered in the remote bush for holding young crocodiles until a buyer from a larger farm comes around. Small crocodiles bring less money than medium-sized animals, but the villager avoids having to feed and care for them for a long period.(Because of operational difficulties, many village farms were abandoned in 1982. Lack of proper husbandy - despite government efforts - were the main reason for these difficulties. Most villagers now collect and hold young only until buyers from commercial farms arrive. However, they are still earning money from crocodiles, and the concept of fully functioning village farms remains valid for the future in Papua New Guinea, as well as for appropriate sites elsewhere).
The small-business farm usually consists of a group of enclosures (each about 6 m x 6 m) constructed of bush materials. It is typically located near an airstrip. It buys crocodiles from the village farmer and, in turn, supplies them to the larger farms, which sometimes dispatch aircraft to pick the animals up (Special cardboard shipping containers have been devised. They can be folded to make cylinders of various diameters to fit crocodiles of different sizes).
Large-scale crocodile farms accommodate as many as 20,000 crocodiles and require a large investment. They serve to regulate the export of skins and are the major purchasers of live crocodiles from the smaller farms. During periods of drought, flooding, or diminished food supplies, the large-scale farms also act as emergency buyers. On the outskirts of Lae on Papua New Guinea's northern coast, there is a 100-hectare farm with nearly 8,000 crocodiles. It is associated with a poultry company, and the crocodiles are raised on the offal from the slaughterhouse.
Government Research and Extension
The Wildlife Division has constructed four demonstration farms across the country and one large research farm at Moitaka near Port Moresby, the capital city. After training at one of these, a tribesman can start his own farm alone or can call on the government for further assistance.
Moitaka is also the site of short courses in crocodile farming. Prospective farmers are brought in for several weeks' training. They learn how to build pens, to feed and care for crocodiles, to kill and skin them, and to prepare the hides for market. They also learn about the crocodile laws and the reason they were enacted. A farm at Lake Murray, in a remote and swampy area of the Western Province, serves the same purpose. It is built entirely from bush materials (see picture, pp. 6-7).
The Wildlife Division provides instruction books, profusely illustrated for the illiterate. The books include vivid descriptions of all phases of farming the animals.
In 10 years, crocodile rearing has expanded remarkably in Papua New Guinea. It has already become the main source of income for the people of some swamp and river areas. The Ambunti area, for example, produces coffee and rice, but crocodile skins now bring in much of the area's income. By 1981 the farms nationwide contained a total of 30,000 crocodiles, ensuring a sustained production of at least 10,000 skins a year worth approximately US$ 1-2 million on the international market.
Because crocodiles are a familiar resource, villagers take to the program quickly. By contrast, introducing cattle or western-style crop raising requires massive education and training, in addition to some social and environmental disruption.
On government farms in Papua New Guinea, fish-fed crocodiles have increased their belly width by 25 cm per year and are ready for slaughter in 2-3 years when the width approaches 50 cm. The selling price of the skin is then between $100 and $200, depending on species, flaws, and size.
But skins are not the only product. A crocodile with a skin big enough to market can provide 20 kg of meat. The meat is white and is low in fat. Papua New Guinea is a net importer of meat, and crocodile farming is now augmenting local supplies. The large farm at Lae already sells frozen crocodile meat (including front and hind legs, tail steaks, ribs, and chops) both locally and on foreign markets. Some orders have come in from dealers in Paris who supply expensive French restaurants.