Crocodiles

24.05.17

The Australian crocodile industry began commercial production in the late 1970’s. The majority of crocodile skins produced for trade in Australia and internationally are from farm-raised stock making farming critical to the global crocodile industry. Prior to this the Australian crocodile industry was based on harvesting wild crocodiles for their skin, however the intensity of hunting in the 1950’s and 1960’s led to serious decline of these populations and conservation and protection was pursued by the hunters themselves. Crocodiles became an officially protected species throughout Australia in 1974.

Overview

Commercial viability of crocodile farming in Australia relies on being able to produce high-quality, first grade skins which are used to produce premium leather for products such as handbags, luggage and other fashion accessories. Australian accounts for 60% of the global trade in crocodile skins, with two thirds of that produced in the Northern Territory. The main export markets for skins are Singapore, France, Japan and Italy and the main export markets for meat are Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, United States and Canada.

Commercial production of crocodiles in Australia is limited to the tropical northern regions of the country which is the animal’s natural habitat. Wild capture and commercial production are both done under strict licencing. The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement governing the trade of endangered species. Under this agreement Australia’s saltwater crocodile cannot be traded except from government authorised captive breeding establishments or closed cycle farms.

There are two species of crocodile in Australia, the saltwater or estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) and the freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus Johnstonii). The saltwater crocodile is considered dangerous while the freshwater crocodile which is smaller and timid is not considered dangerous to humans. Freshwater crocodiles are considered more difficult to produce commercially for a viable economic return.

In Australia, many commercial crocodile farms are businesses engaged in skin production, conservation, tourism and education, and meat production. The skin of the Australian saltwater crocodile is considered one of the best leathers in the world and its main competitors are skins from other crocodile species from Africa, Asia and Papua New Guinea. An average of 1.33 million crocodilians were harvested annually worldwide for the three years to 2010, Australian production accounts for slightly more than 1% of this world total.

Facts and Figures

  • There are 13 commercial crocodile farms in northern Australia
  • Trade in crocodile and alligators is subject to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)
  • Permits are required to import or export crocodile products
  • Crocodile farming is subject to state laws and regulations
  • Food and feeding costs have a large impact on the commercial viability of crocodile farming
  • Crocodile farming is a mix of wild harvesting and captive breeding (conducted under strict licencing)
  • Being able to continue to make innovative improvements in production efficiency is essential to Australia being competitive

Production Status

There were 13 commercial farms in Australia: seven in the Northern Territory; five in Queensland; and one in Western Australia. Some of these farms are production only farms while others are production and tourism farms.

In the Northern Territory and Western Australia, crocodile farming involves both captive breeding and regulated sustainable harvesting of eggs and live crocodiles from the wild. In Queensland crocodile farming is done through captive breeding only and wild harvesting is illegal.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

The main commercial product from crocodiles is the skin which is used to produce premium leather used for fashion accessories including shoes, belts, bags, luggage and wallets. Crocodile meat is sold domestically and exported while other animal products, such as feet, teeth and skulls are sold on the domestic market. Crocodile meat is considered a succulent white meat that is low in fat and high in protein.

First grade crocodile skins are highly sought after in Japan, France, Italy and the Asian countries. The second and third grade skins are also exported, although there is a growing domestic demand. The by-products of meat, feet, teeth and skulls are mainly sold on the domestic market. Feet and teeth are made into key-rings, jewellery and back scratchers and skulls are often mounted onto boards as display pieces.

Tourism also provides an important income for many crocodile farms.

Production Requirements

Growing Regions

Crocodiles are a tropical climate animal and so farming is generally constrained to the warmer climates of northern Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland which is the crocodile’s natural range.

There are seven commercial crocodile farms in the Northern Territory which all operate under the Wildlife Trade Management Plan for the Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) in the Northern Territory of Australia, 2016-2020, five in Queensland and one in Western Australia.

Climate

Crocodiles are a tropical climate animal preferring temperatures around 30°C. Commercial production in Australia is undertaken in areas within the animal’s natural range, i.e. across tropical northern Australia.

If rearing only, as opposed to breeding and rearing, then theoretically production does not need to take place in the animals natural range but needs a controlled environment providing basic requirements for survival and growth, specifically heat (temperature control), water, shelter and food. However, while this is theoretically possible, commercial production in Australia to date has been within the animal’s natural range.

Housing

Under commercial production, crocodiles are housed in ponds with secure fencing. The size of the pen will vary depending on stocking rates. As a general rule, farms calculate ten hatchlings per square meter and then depending on the size of the growing animals in each enclosure, reduce down to five animals per square meter. Producers will grade animals according to size and group similar sized animals together.

Each pen should have a water area (pond), a land area, access to sunshine (for heat) and shade. Pens used for breeding will require higher and stronger fences to secure adult animals, and as mating animals need space to retreat, several ponds and more space will be required.

Crocodiles are carnivorous and very territorial and pen design must take into account their aggressive nature. Pens with separate water areas, space for retreat, and visual barriers are important for crocodile social cohesion and behaviour. If large male crocodiles cannot retreat from each others sight they will fight during the breeding season and although fights do not always end in death, there can be losses. With the right pen design crocodiles can develop a dominance order making it possible for males to cohabit the same pen.

Water in the ponds needs to be changed regularly (daily for small animals and longer for larger). While fresh water is ideal, water can be treated, recycled or reused on crocodiles or gardens. However, it is important that re-use water be used in a progression from younger to older animals – fresh, clean water used for hatchlings through to treated and used water for older crocodiles. It is important that water from older crocodiles is not used on younger animals. As a guide, daily water needs for rearing crocodiles would be in the vicinity of 20 litres per day per crocodile.

Feed requirements

Crocodiles are carnivores and as food and feeding is a major cost of crocodile farming, farmers source the most cost-effective meat, including waste products from other industries such as the poultry meat and fish industries. The most common source of meat for commercial crocodile production is chicken waste from processing works. The amount of food required to grow a saltwater crocodile from hatchling to culling is around 80-160k. Small crocodiles are generally fed daily, growing crocodiles are fed three times a week and adult crocodiles are fed once a week.

The amount of food required will vary depending on the stage of growth and reproduction. Recent research has started to investigate a diet for optimum growth and has found that growth is affected by a complex interaction of factors including food type, feeding capacity, digestion rates, body temperature, volume and frequency of feeding and food conversion rates.

Although dry and semi-dry processed foods have been used successfully in the diets of farmed American alligators there are no published reports of success transferring this to crocodiles.

Breeds and Breeding

There are two species of crocodile in Australia, the saltwater or estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) and the freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus Johnstonii). The freshwater crocodile is not grown for commercial production in Australia.

The saltwater crocodile (locally referred to as a saltie) is the largest terrestrial and riparian predator in the world with males reaching over 6m in length (but generally range between 4.3-5.2m) and weighing up to 2,000kg and females generally growing up to 3m in length. The saltwater crocodile’s natural range are salt water habitats including mangrove swamps, estuaries, deltas, lagoons, and lower stretches of rivers. In the wild, saltwater crocodiles mate during the dry season, between September and October and generally lay between 30 and 80 eggs between November and March in a mound nest made from vegetation.

The crocodiles will call from within their eggs prior to hatching which stimulates and syncronises the hatching of all the eggs and signals to the adult to open or excavate the nest. The adult crocodile may then assist the crocodiles to break out of the egg and then carry them to water.

It is important for crocodiles to be located within their natural range for breeding as they respond to the weather to stimulate and initiate the breeding cycle and for egg incubation.

Breeding in captivity entails providing isolated breeding ponds with only the breeding animals. The ratio of male to females can range from 1:1 pairs to 1:5 males to females, or even a breeding colony of two or three males to 20 plus females. Many crocodile farmers advocate a pair arrangement of 1:1, however other considerations such as capital costs may encourage higher male to female ratios. Male and female crocodiles are selected for breeding pairs based on compatibility of size and then allowed to grow together and mate.

Once the eggs are laid they are generally collected and incubated under controlled conditions (incubator). Incubation of eggs occurs over a temperature range of 29-33°C and the sex of the hatchlings is determined by temperature with females being produced at either end of the temperature range and males produced from the middle of this range 32°C. As males grow and survive better, there is a commercial advantage to control incubation to produce males. Eggs hatch after 82 days with eggs weighing about 120g and hatchling length about 22cm. Hatchlings begin feeding after 3-5 days.

Selective breeding in captivity selects for different traits than those found in the wild. For example, in the wild natural selection has worked for thousands of years to select for nervousness, but this is not a desirable trait in captive animals. Captive breeding generally aims to select for better growth, higher productivity and lower susceptibility to stress.

Sourcing Stock

Breeding stock can be sourced from other commercial crocodile farms. In the Northern Territory, some producers source breeding stock from the wild under strict licencing from the Northern Territory government.

Health care & Pests and Diseases

Both saltwater and freshwater crocodiles prefer temperatures of about 30°C and being cold blooded use the environment to control and manage body temperature. Two common practices are basking in the sun to warm up and gaping to expose the tongue to air flow or sunlight which allows heat exchange.

Living in humid conditions and high temperatures increases the risk of fungal diseases and as such hygiene is an important issue for the industry. Standard hygiene practices are essential to good management and include regular washing and feeding, monitoring water quality and regularly changing the water.

Crocodile pens require regular cleaning and water ponds drained and replenished. This is generally done daily for small crocodiles but this time frame can be extended for larger animals. As moving crocodiles can be quite stressful for the animals, cleaning and water replenishing is carried out while they are still in the pens and so care must be taken not to cause them stress.

If water supply is sufficient and reliable then fresh water is recommended for all crocodiles. However, if necessary water can be treated and used in progression from youngest to oldest with fresh, clean water supplied to hatchlings and then treated and used for older crocodiles. Water from older crocodiles should never be treated and re-used on younger animals.

Fungal diseases can be treated with copper sulphate, Condy’s Crystals, total spectrum disinfectant, fungicide, formaldehyde and Tea Tree oil.

As crocodiles are aggressive animals, injuries can occur from fighting which may require treatment. Treating injured crocodiles may require sedation as crocodiles get stressed with handling. Isolation of injured crocodiles is very important as they will self-heal as long as their temperature is kept at around 30°C. Long acting medications are used to reduce the need for handling and the subsequent stress caused. Handling skills are required for safety reasons and to keep crocodiles stress level at a minimum.

Infrastructure Requirements

Infrastructure required to establish a commercial crocodile farm will depend on the intended products (skin, meat, value add products) of the enterprise and whether breeding will be undertaken. The range of infrastructure that could be required includes:

  • Incubator – to incubate eggs if undertaking breeding (or, if permitted, eggs collected from the wild)
  • Hatchling shed
  • Grower shed
  • Hospital shed – for treating sick or injured animals
  • Breeder ponds – dedicated ponds for crocodiles to breed if undertaking breeding
  • Grow out ponds – secured/ fenced ponds for crocodiles to grow to harvest size
  • Abattoir complex – killing, skinning and meat processing
  • Skin room – salting, packing and storage
  • Machinery shed
  • Work shed
  • Freezer room – for storage of food supplies
  • Chiller room
  • Food preparation room
  • Water storage tanks, pump houses, pumps and water reticulation – the amount of water required will depend on pond design, for example, concrete or fibreglass ponds use less water than earthen lakes or dams
  • Water treatment area – for treatment of effluent water
  • Security fencing

In considering suitable locations for a commercial crocodile farm it is essential that access to services and labour are reliable. Site selection must take into account access to reliable electricity and gas delivery, good access roads that are not cut-off during the wet season, proximity to meat processors that can supply food for the crocodiles and proximity to labour markets.

Commercial crocodile farms in Australia are all located in tropical climates where access to labour and good roads can be unreliable. Crocodile farms have been known to fail due to lack of reliable labour and inaccessibility from floods during the wet season so specific site selection is critical.

Harvesting & Processing

Farmed crocodiles are usually harvested between two and three years of age when their belly skin measures at least 35cm. This is usually when the animal is 1.5-2m long.

To manage the population, dominant crocodiles with aggressive temperaments are usually harvested first as they can have a depressive effect on growth of the submissive individuals. As the hierarchy will adjust itself and the next largest animal will become dominant, this selection is an ongoing process.

Harvesting is generally done using an electrical stunning wand which renders the crocodile immobile for several minutes. During this time the skin is graded, and a strategic cut to the nape is given to allow the animal to bleed out and then the brain is pithed with a short steel rod. The whole animal is then hung in a chiller overnight. Producers generally process for both meat and skin and the butchering and skinning is carried out at accredited processing works.

Skins are generally cut as belly skins as this is the most usable and valued part of the hide. All skins must be tagged with official tags purchased from Environment Australia for exporting. Butchering for meat must be carried out in a Department of Primary Industry (or equivalent agency) approved premises.

There is one facility in Australia able to tan crocodile skins, however most skins are usually sold raw and tanned overseas.

Markets & Marketing

The major focus of the intensive farming of crocodiles is the production of high quality skins to supply the expanding demand for high quality leather. The main market for first grade skins is Europe and a secondary market in Asia which also on-sells first grade skins to Europe. Second and third grade skins are usually sold within Australia to smaller operators that specialise in making products for the tourism industry or producing high quality products.

Crocodile skins are sold raw direct to tanners under buying agreements. Some producers sell value-added products and tanned skins via their own website or on-site at their farms but the volume of these sales is generally insufficient to support a commercial business.

Crocodile meats and other products are sold mainly within Australia to caterers and companies that on-sell to the public. Buyers generally seek out crocodile producers to source meat.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/Challenges

Setting up a commercial crocodile farm can be expensive and there may be no return on investment for many years. Producers need to be prepared to take financial risks.

Site selection is critical and access to electicity, gas delivery, a reliable labour force, and good roads is important. Flood-free areas within the crocodile’s natural range are recommended. Additionally, crocodile farming requires high volumes of water and so access to reliable water sources is critical as is the ability to store and/or recycle water.

As the commercial production of crocodiles for skin and meat is a highly regulated activity, understanding state/territory and federal laws and regulations is crucial.

Regulatory Considerations

Farming of crocodiles is subject to state laws and regulations which apply to farming, processing, storage and transport. State regulations apply to the domestic trading of crocodile products and proof of compliance to regulations may be required. Harvesting of wild crocodiles and their eggs is regulated and a state issued licence is required.

As the crocodile is a protected species, the production and trade of live crocodiles and any crocodile product is controlled and traced by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (CITES). Because crocodiles are protected, permits are required to export or import products made from crocodile.

In Australia, the commercial export of products derived from native species is required to be approved under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Crocodile trade management plans and operations approved under the EPBC Act are required to adhere to the Code of Practice on the Humane Treatment of Wild and Farmed Crocodiles. State and territory authorities are responsible for the enforcement of this Code as a normal component of their wildlife management, compliance and enforcement functions. Relevant state and territory legislation include the Wildlife Trade Management Plan for the Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) in the Northern Territory of Australia, 2016-2020.

Publications

Publications/information

Emerging animal and plant industries: Their value to Australia RIRDC report (2014)

Improving Australia’s Crocodile Industry Productivity – RIRDC report (2013)

Production Implications of Trace Element Concentrations in Crocodile Eggs and Tissues – RIRDC report (2013)

Hunting Viruses in Crocodiles: Viral and endogenous retroviral detection and characterisation in farmed crocodiles – RIRDC report (2012)

Tracking Crocodile Skin Defects: From farm to product – RIRDC report (2011)

Potential Markets for New and Emerging Meats – RIRDC report (2006)

China: Crocodile Meat Market Research – RIRDC report (2011)

Linkage Mapping and Quantitative Trait Loci (QTL) Analysis in Saltwater Crocodiles – RIRDC (2010)

Improving Australia’s Crocodile Industry Productivity – Understanding runtism and survival – RIRDC publication (2009)

Requirements for New Animal Products Traceability Systems – RIRDC report (2008)

Chlamydial Infection in Farmed Crocodiles – RIRDC publication (2008)

New Animal Products: New uses and markets for co/by-products of crocodile, emu, goat, kangaroo and rabbit– RIRDC report (2007)

Composition of New Meats: Analyses and nutrient composition of innovative meat industries – RIRDC report (2007)

Crocodile Farming Research: On-farm research of pelleted feed for crocodiles – RIRDC report (2006)

Crocodile Farming Research – RIRDC report (2005)

Farmed Saltwater Crocodiles – A genetic improvement program – RIRDC report (2004)

Adding Value to New Animal Product Supply Chains – RIRDC report (2004)

Australian Crocodile Skins – RIRDC report (2004)

Benchmarks for New Animal Products: Crocodile, Squab and Yabby – RIRDC evaluation report (2002)

Buffalo, Camel, Crocodile, Emu, Kangaroo, Ostrich and Rabbit Meat – RIRDC report (2003)

Improved Nutrition and Management of Farmed Crocodiles – RIRDC report (2001)

Improving the quality of Australian crocodile skins – RIRDC report (2000)

Skin Disease of Farmed Crocodiles – RIRDC report (2000)

Crocodiles Restraining and meat quality – RIRDC report (2000)

Crocodile Farming: Research, Development and On-farm monitoring – RIRDC report (1998)

Designing a Research Facility for Grower Size Crocodiles – RIRDC report (1998)

Other resources

Crocodile farming and trade – NT Government

Industry Bodies

Queensland Crocodile Industry Group – there is no official website for this group

Northern Territory Crocodile Association – This association is located in Darwin and there is no official website for this group

Image Gallery

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Crocodile hatchling

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Farmed crocodiles kept in pens

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Tanned, coloured crocodile skins

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Two year old crocodiles at Crococyluls Park, Darwin

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Tanned crocodile skin

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Handbags, wallets and diaries made from crocodile leather

Related Publications

03.03.09

Emerging Animal and Plant Industries - Their Value to Australia (2nd Edition)

20.05.13

Improving Australia’s Crocodile Industry Productivity

31.07.13

Production Implications of Trace Element Concentrations in Crocodile Eggs and Tissues

25.07.12

Hunting Viruses in Crocodiles: Viral and endogenous retroviral detection and characterisation in farmed crocodiles