The Papua New Guinea experience provides a model for other nations, but to implement such a program requires a foundation of legislation, government support, and legal safeguards. Prerequisites of any crocodile farming program are an overhaul of legislation, strict law enforcement, and reciprocal laws with neighboring countries.
The enforcement of wildlife regulations is so inadequate in most countries that crocodile farming is open to abuse. Farms can front for illegal poaching operations, and hides taken from the wild can be intermingled with hides produced on the ranch or farm unless government enforcement is stringent and inspection frequent.
Moreover, the stimulation of world trade in crocodile hides through the sale of farmed hides might lead to increased poaching of wild crocodiles or eggs. Poachers have fewer operating expenses than farmers, and unscrupulous hunters and dealers can harvest hides, steal crocodile eggs or young, and subsequently sell them through countries that lack enforcement capabilities. This practice could be disastrous for countries where crocodile populations have almost disappeared.
Before any farming scheme is attempted, protective legislation should be in operation throughout the country. This should make it unlawful to kill, capture by any means whatsoever, disturb willfully, or pursue any crocodiles, or to collect or gather any crocodile eggs without a permit.
No crocodile eggs should be allowed to be imported or exported with out a permit. No persons should possess, sell, buy, donate, receive consequent upon a donation, convey, keep in captivity, or display any live crocodiles without being the holder of a permit. And no person should be allowed to import or export any crocodile, dead or alive, or any portion of a crocodile, processed or not, from any country without a permit.
Before granting a license for a commercial farm, the government should investigate the applicant's land tenure and financial resources, particularly since the farm will have to operate for three to four years before producing crocodiles suitable for culling. The applicant's ability and experience in rearing crocodiles should be determined. A plan of the proposed farm, including details of water and food supply and the proposed methods of harvesting food, should be examined.
It is suggested that:
· No permit for egg harvesting should be issued until adequate rearing facilities have been prepared. The permit should state the name of the holder or his authorized representative, the annual total number of eggs allocated for harvesting, and the area where collection is permitted.(In some cases it is also important to specify a harvest time. Often it is best to take eggs laid early in the season because the female will then lay another clutch.)
· Permits should be issued on a year-by-year basis. The applicant should understand that the department may refuse to renew or issue further permits if the farm is not managed satisfactorily or if permit conditions have not been observed.
· The applicant should understand that the farm and all production records should be available for inspection by an official of the conservation department.
· The farmer should be required to submit periodic reports detailing the total number of nests raided and eggs harvested, the egg mortality, and the number of eggs hatched. Thereafter, the number of animals held in captivity, the rate of mortality and its causes, if known, and the number of animals sold or culled should be included in each report.
Furthermore, it is recommended that the permit holder release 5 percent of his annual crop of hatchlings in order to restock the natural habitat. In addition, a further 5 percent of the hatchling crop should be reared to a length of 1 m before being released, bringing the total release of young crocodilians to 10 percent of the annual crop of hatchlings.
The distribution of hatchlings and young reared animals should be supervised by the conservation department.
Unless government agencies monitor the wild populations of crocodilians being harvested for hides, eggs, or young, the farms themselves could become a major drain on those populations, leading to their extinction. Therefore, before any farming program is started, a survey of the breeding grounds should be undertaken to determine the number of nests available and those from which eggs can be taken with least danger to the wild population (for example, from nests on grounds likely to be flooded).
These breeding grounds should be fully protected; tourists on foot, in vehicles, or in launches should not be allowed to visit or disturb crocodiles during the breeding season.
International Safeguards and Cooperation
The international traffic in millions of unmarked crocodilian hides and products poses one of the greatest obstacles to enforcement of national and international endangered species regulations. Hides and skins frequently cannot be traced to their source or country of origin. Legally harvested or farmed animals cannot readily be distinguished from those exported in secret from illegal sources.
The need for internationally acceptable methods of marking individual hides and products is critical. Traffic in illegal crocodilian hides and products will continue as long as law enforcement agencies lack the means to detect them easily.
In the United States a system has been developed in some states that enables conservation, police, and customs officials to monitor traffic in alligator hides. A conservation authority issues an official tag for each animal allowed by the license. All hides exported are tagged with a serially numbered plastic tag that cannot be removed without breaking it. The serial number is recorded on the export permit and with details of the buyer's and seller's name and address. This tag remains on the hide, right through the tanning process, until the hide reaches the manufacturer. Each tannery maintains a register of purchases that is available for inspection. This system also is being implemented in Zimbabwe and is worthy of trial in other countries.
The tagging of all hides and products for individual identification is an important safeguard. Other safeguards include:
· The use of engraved stamps or seals to authenticate legal licenses and export permits and make it more difficult for documents to be forged.
· Internationally accessible data and a retrieval system that allows law enforcement personnel to corroborate the authenticity of documentation and the origin of hides and products;
· Monitoring agencies to record and publish market statistics, traffic, and trends;
· Laws limiting the sale of hides only to nations that cooperate in an internationally sanctioned program of safeguards; and
· Research funding to monitor populations and develop new marking and identification techniques. (For instance, the use of dyes, roll marking, and infusion of detectable chemical tracers has yet to be fully explored.)
There is urgent need for tannery owners, manufacturers, and conservation authorities to jointly work out the rational exploitation of crocodile populations. Commercial interests have reaped a rich reward over many years, and if the crocodile industry is to continue, its entrepreneurs must invest in management and conservation.
Clearly, research to improve farming techniques will be a wise investment for both commercial operators and the countries concerned. Surveys to determine population numbers and size as well as the structure of breeding stocks and recruitment rates are essential. Such surveys may indicate the need to establish sanctuaries to protect breeding stock and nesting grounds, or perhaps to ban hunting to allow populations to recover. A rearing program and restocking of suitable habitats might be necessary.