Australia Wants to Cull Crocodiles – But Farm Them for Leather, Too

Inside the crocodile farming industry’s dark calculations.

Crocodile farm
Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

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Australia has a new plan to manage its growing crocodile population, but not everyone is a fan. Late last month, officials in the Northern Territory released an updated saltwater crocodile management plan, the culmination of months of public comments and consultation with experts. But stakeholders are still split down the middle. Part of the controversy stems from crocodile farms, the facilities responsible for propping up the industry of crocodile leather goods sold by luxury purveyors like Hermes. Another point of contention: whether the culls set out in the new policy (which also shifts maximum egg and live animal takes to quotas) are really necessary, or even beneficial.

Thanks to trade in their skin, by the 1970s, saltwater crocodiles had been hunted to the brink of extinction. In 1971, they were protected by conservation policy. Their populations began to rebound up through the 1980s, when an increase in crocodiles’ conflict with people led to public turmoil. This lead the Northern Territory — where crocodile populations are concentrated — to turn toward farming as a solution.

To encourage the public, and especially landowners, to think more “positively” about crocodiles and thus support their continued recovery, trade in their hides resumed. Instead of on-farm breeding, crocodile eggs were — and continue to be — collected from wild nests.

“The only possible way we are going to [succeed at restoring the population] is if we make crocodiles so valuable to people that they will see them as an asset rather than as a liability,” Grahame Webb, a crocodilian researcher, said at a recent panel on the decision to open his own farm and tourist park. He went on to say that landowners who have nests won’t destroy them, and may even add fencing to protect them; they can get thousands of dollars annually for the eggs. “If people don’t have any [crocodile leather goods], there is no two ways about it: nobody is going to put up with [crocodiles].”

Today there are over 130,000 saltwater crocodiles on farms in all of Australia, according to World Animal Protection estimates, with most of them concentrated in the Northern Territory. The territory is also home to an estimated 100,000 wild crocodiles.

In 2019, the crocodile farming industry in the Northern Territory was worth $25 million and, with the new policy, Northern Territory officials are hoping it continues to grow. Not everyone agrees that the industry’s growth is a good thing, however. As Dinesh Wadiwel, a professor at the University of Sydney argues in an email to Sentient, “[T]he use of intensive farming for crocodile skin is highly concerning, as history tells us these products will become normalized over time as production increases, as prices lower, and more consumers demand them.”

Culling Crocodiles As ‘Population Management’

Crocodiles’ monetary value stems not just from their hides, but also from the tourists they bring to the Northern Territory. With that value, however, comes public safety risk. Though the last fatal crocodile attack was in 2018, last year, five people were injured by crocodiles — the highest number of incidents since 2014. The solution laid out in the new policy: culling or removing all crocodiles in areas used for swimming, or in places that draw a large number of people. The widespread cull is a departure from the strategy of relocation that was previously used to control so-called problem crocodiles. Despite the increase in crocodile population over the last several decades, both the farming industry and culls have their fair share of critics.

According to the territory’s officials, the population has reached a dangerous size, placing public safety in jeopardy. But not every expert agrees that the culls called for in the Northern Territories plan are necessary, or even good — especially given the low number of attacks in recent years.

“The recent announcement to allow for targeted culling of wild crocodiles appears politically motivated and out of step with the need to respect and conserve these iconic native Australian animals,” Ben Pearson of World Animal Protection’s Australian team told Sentient in a statement. “Education on coexistence with saltwater crocodiles is needed, not culling.”

Some experts in crocodile conflict caution that culls could also put the public at greater risk, by lulling humans into a false sense of security. An inquiry by the Australian Senate on lethal management of shark populations found the program led to a similar false sense of security among beach goers. Further, culling large, dominant male crocodiles also runs the risk of creating a reptilian power vacuum, with the remaining males left fighting for dominance.

The Disease Risks of Crocodile Farms

“They’re doing this to maximize their profits,” Liz Cabrera Holtz, a campaigner with World Animal Protection, says of the luxury brands that own reptilian factory farms. In 2023, Hermes raked in $4.5 billion in profits. While the luxury brand isn’t the only one to sell crocodile leather products, they are one of the most infamous, recently opening one of the largest crocodile farms in the Northern Territory via their subsidiary, PRI Farming. The facility can house up to 50,000 crocodiles at a time.

The viable eggs — all 90,000 of them — are hatched on various farms across the territory. Once hatched, the crocs start their lives piled atop one another in group pools, as seen in aerial footage taken of a different farm owned by PRI farming. In the wild, crocodiles can travel up to 10 miles a day. In captivity, however, the reptiles are separated into individual pens to finish maturing.

Another cause for concern is that wildlife farms like these are a public health threat, according to a recent report from World Animal Protection.

“You bring animals together in large numbers, [and] if there is an infectious organism in those numbers it’s more likely to be spread and magnified [posing] a risk to the workers,” says Darryl Heard, a professor of zoological medicine at the University of Florida’s veterinary school. In “all [industrial animal agriculture] industries this is an issue and a potential problem and a risk,” he continues, making the point that the risk of zoonotic disease spread is not unique to crocodiles.

The authors of the report argue that several zoonotic diseases can spread on crocodile farms, including salmonella, West Nile virus and leptospirosis. Bacterial infections — like salmonella — are particularly common amongst reptiles, says Heard. Salmonella can also be particularly difficult to identify, as reptiles aren’t constantly shedding the bacteria in their feces. Another complicating factor: infected reptiles don’t usually develop symptoms.

Salmonella isn’t the only bacteria that can spread on crocodile farms. Parasites pose a health risk not just to workers, but also to wild populations, if reptile waste isn’t handled appropriately. Among those parasites they can carry are various types of worms; leptospirosis and West Nile virus are less common, but still pose a threat. In 2002, for example, there was an outbreak of West Nile on a Florida alligator farm, which likely lead to the deaths of 300 alligators over a two-month period.

“When [animals] are stressed, [they] are more susceptible to disease,” argues Cabrera Holtz, who co-authored the report. And on crocodile farms, it’s not uncommon to see stressed animals, due to the confined conditions in which they live, placed into group housing with no acclimation period. 

As Wadiwel points out, the market for crocodile goods — like many other animal-derived products and foods — “was created by industries with profit as a motive, not because humans needed them, or because [non-animal] alternatives were not available.”

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