Farming baby crocodiles to 'save saltie'

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Media captionThe saltwater crocodile – once facing extinction is now a big tourist draw in Australia.

Australia's saltwater crocodile, once threatened with extinction, is now so prevalent that it is increasingly encroaching into areas of human habitation. One response is to shoot these reptiles. Another, as The Travel Show's Rajan Datar has been finding out, is to remove them to a wildlife sanctuary, even one where other crocs are being farmed and killed for their skins:

It is early morning and Dave Tapper has an urgent but tricky task to complete at the wildlife park that is home to some 3,500 crocodiles.

Guts, a 6m-long (18ft) crocodile, is unhappy that a smaller, younger, crocodile has broken into his fenced area. This newcomer needs to be removed for its own safety.

Armed with just a couple of bamboo sticks, each with a rope noose on the end, Dave and chief crocodile handler Chris Baker hop over the fence into Guts' pen, a 1,000 sq m swamp.

Image caption Snaring crocodiles can be a dangerous business

First job is to get the jaws of the smaller interloper tied firmly shut before others join them to lift the animal on to an aluminium stretcher and remove it from the pen.

They dangle the rope over the animal's nose and tighten it around the reptile's upper jaw. A second noose is then applied and the two men tug away while the croc thrashes about a bit before a third lasso closes the croc's entire mouth.

Just to make sure the animal cannot bite, tape is wrapped around the mouth to seal it firmly shut before the crocodile is heaved on to the stretcher by the rest of the team.

The whole operation is over in 10 minutes and no-one has had to heed Dave's advice that if "it all goes pear-shaped, run!"

Hunted near to extinction

Crocodiles can grow up to 7m in length and weigh up to one tonne, so this 4m-specimen is a relative lightweight.

But even a crocodile this size, warns Dave, has enough crunching power to rip off a limb. Furthermore, he says, in spite of its beguiling sleepy appearance, crocodiles have reactions seven times faster than a human.

The saltwater crocodile is one of Australia's most well-known wildlife species and a major tourist draw at the park. It can live to be up to 70 years old and, despite its name, nearly three-quarters are found in fresh water.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, it was hunted to near extinction. Since 1970, however, the "saltie" has enjoyed protected status in Australia and now, the world's largest reptile is flourishing in the wild.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Saltwater crocodiles can live for 70 years

The latest estimates put the total Australian crocodile population at around 200,000. But what has also grown is the potential risk presented to humans.

Each year, there is a handful of crocodile attacks on humans in Australia. In some years there have been no fatalities although in 2014 so far there have been six attacks, three of them fatal, according to CrocBite, a database maintained by Charles Darwin University.

Nonetheless, experts warn that with a rise in the number of very large crocodiles in the wild, that death rate could rise over the next decade as these animals tend to be more dangerous.

This has led to an increasing number of licensed culls but Dave Tapper's philosophy is to try to save saltwater crocodiles by bringing them into the Malcolm Douglas Wilderness Wildlife Park in Broome, Western Australia.

All 3,500 salties in the park have been "removed" from the wild. Typically, it is because they are a threat to local Aboriginal communities or tourists at nearby fishing spots or to aquatic farms.

But while tourists contribute to the costs of the park, the centre also breeds crocodiles to sell the skins for luxury fashion items to help meet the overheads. The annual cost of feeding these animals costs A$40,000 ($34,000; £21,500) alone.

Dave confesses he has a "small conflict of interest internally" about the fact that the park both saves wild crocodiles and farms others for their skins.

White underbelly prized

In all, there are 500 breeding animals which produce the hatchlings that grow to 2m long before being killed and skinned.

The mating season runs from October to November. Gestation lasts some four to five weeks after which the females lay eggs in a nest of compost.

After a while, the eggs are taken away to be monitored and some 80 to 90 days later, they hatch.

The baby crocs are then placed in a tank with about 50 others until they grow large enough - between 1.6m and 1.8m - at about four years old to then be placed in individual pens.

A few months later they are shot, painlessly says Dave, using a .22-calibre rifle shot to the brain. Though they die instantly, precautions are taken handling the dead animal as they can still lash out after death, Dave says.

Once the skin is removed the hide is covered with salt to absorb excess moisture, then rolled up and left for two weeks. Salting is repeated and the skin is then sent to the tannery.

In previous years, the meat would have been sold to local restaurants and other outlets but falling demand and exacting standards required for human consumption means this no longer happens.

While Dave tried crocodile meat himself he now follows his optimistic maxim: " If I don't eat them, they won't eat me."

But the skin of the saltie, especially the white underbelly with its uniform scales, is highly sought after.

Image caption One of the farms young crocodiles that grow up to 2m before being killed for their skins

The Broome farm sells around 600 skins a year each for about a A$1,000 each. Eager buyers include fashion labels Hermes and Louis Vuitton who use the hides to make high-end handbags (each one needing three skins) purses and belts.

Animal rights group, RSPCA Australia wasn't able to comment on the Malcolm Douglas wildlife park but says it is opposed to the farming of crocodiles and other "non-domesticated" species until "farming systems are developed that have no adverse effect on the welfare of the animal involved."

"I fully understand the reasoning behind any criticism," Dave says.

"Crocodile farming does cop a fair bit of flak because it is seen as exploiting one of our native animals," he says.

"Crocodiles keep fish species down which is very important in the ecosystem so it is good to have them in the wild," he adds.

But, he says given that the animals were nearly hunted to extinction, "we feel if these animals are going to be killed better to put them in a sanctuary so they are captive.

"As long as they have enough water, they are fine. They are often paired up with the opposite sex so they have a comfortable life."

As for the captive croc breeding programme, ultimately Dave believes it is like any other animal farming operation - for instance of sheep and cattle. "You raise them for a purpose.

"Some people don't understand the crocodile's place in the ecosystem and so want the whole lot of them to be shot. Others say they shouldn't be culled under any circumstances."

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