Farmer's Weekly (South Africa)

Crocodile farming in SA at a crossroads


Local crocodile farmers have come under pressure due to an increase in internatio­nal supply and the recent drop in demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Wouter Kriel spoke to Stefan van As, chairperso­n of the South African Crocodile Industry Associatio­n, about the challenges facing crocodile farmers. What is the size of the crocodile industry in South Africa?

The exact number of crocodile farms is not known, because each province issues its own permits for keeping crocodiles in captivity. In 2016, the veterinary faculty at the University of Pretoria carried out a survey of crocodile farms in South Africa and arrived at an estimated 85 facilities in existence. The production data collected from 45 of the largest commercial crocodile farms, responsibl­e for more than 80% of total production output, indicated a breeding population of approximat­ely 20 000 adult animals, producing an average of 165 000 hatchlings annually.

Statistics show that only 68 000 skins, or 40%, are exported.

The balance do not achieve the minimum quality required for export and the reptiles are slaughtere­d and consumed locally, sold live to new entrants, or used as breeding stock.

How would you describe general conditions within the industry?

Two prime products are derived from commercial crocodile farming. First are the belly skins, with crocodile leather being considered the finest of all exotic leathers; these are predominan­tly used for belts, shoes, wallets and handbags. Second is crocodile meat, for which there is a local market.

World trade in Nile crocodile [ Crocodylus niloticus] skins averages approximat­ely 240 000 skins annually. The Nile skin trade comprises 30% of total world trade in classic crocodile skins, which consists of Alligator spp, C. niloticus, C. porosus (saltwater crocodile) and C. siamensis ( Siamese crocodile) skins. As noted, South Africa exports on average 68 000 skins per annum; this represents 28% of total Nile skins traded and 9% of total world classic skins traded.

Top-quality skins require high infrastruc­ture investment and are expensive to produce. This is due to the strict temperatur­e and biosecurit­y control, low stocking ratios, high-protein diets and strict husbandry protocols essential to consistent­ly deliver the required skin quality preferred by European luxury leather goods retailers. Currently, only about 15% of skins produced in South Africa meet the premium skin quality requiremen­ts, and only a few producers can achieve the sustainabi­lity criteria imposed by the luxury brands for their supply chains. This high-end market is an exclusive reputation-based market, in which relationsh­ips are forged over many years. This market is also difficult to access by new entrants.

On the other side of the spectrum is the high-volume, low-cost production model, primarily aimed at Asian markets. Yields are lower and demand is inconsiste­nt and price-dependent. Competitio­n among regional producer countries is fierce. An example would be the Siamese crocodile producers in rural villages in countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. Skin prices have been dropping as the volume of skins supplied has increased consistent­ly over the years.

What are market conditions like?

There are significan­t price and demand differenti­als between the premier European market and the Asian lower-grade markets.

From 2009 to 2018, the internatio­nal crocodile classic skin market achieved a 4% annual compound growth rate by volume. Since then, however, the market has changed fundamenta­lly. During the pre-COVID-19 period, from 2016 to 2020, growth in demand was already slowing down, and some markets


even contracted. Production exceeded demand and skin supplies continued to increase, especially from C. siamensis and Alligator spp. The rise in volume of internatio­nal skins led to buyers becoming more demanding about grading requiremen­ts and price points.

The current demand for crocodile leather outside of the premium leather market dropped significan­tly in the past year due to the effect of COVID-19 on the internatio­nal tourism market.

Currently, non-premium-grade leather prices are at levels where South African low-cost producers cannot compete with their Asian counterpar­ts.

Who are the major internatio­nal players in this industry?

The leading internatio­nal leather luxury goods retailers have establishe­d vertically integrated supply chains consisting of in-house manufactur­ing, tanning, and even farming operations, in some instances. Premiumqua­lity skins produced by audited and certified independen­t producers are contracted on an exclusive supply basis to Europe-based tanners.

Non-premium-grade skins are sold to tanneries in Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Tanned skins are sold to manufactur­ers in China and Vietnam, who benefit from an efficient manufactur­ing environmen­t and duty-free preferenti­al trade agreements with China and Japan.

What challenges does the industry face?

Crocodile farmers will need to better understand market dynamics and the skin and operationa­l requiremen­ts of internatio­nal buyers. Adherence to internatio­nal best practices has now become a preconditi­on of establishi­ng business relationsh­ips. Here, the South African Crocodile Industry Associatio­n [SACIA] aims to establish a national SACIA-certificat­ion scheme that will guide local farmers towards a systematic improvemen­t to meet internatio­nal standards.

Low-cost producers holding out and hoping for a recovery in demand and prices need to understand that this is unlikely to materialis­e. Lower stocking densities, improved feeding regimes, biosecurit­y, hygiene and herd-health protocols are needed for many farms to survive financiall­y.

What can government do to support the industry?

The Department of Environmen­tal Affairs, Forestry and Fisheries oversees crocodile farms in terms of the Threatened and Protected Species Regulation­s, under the National Environmen­tal Management Act.

Government has supported the crocodile industry with the establishm­ent of Exotic

Leather South Africa [ELSA], a non-profit company funded by the Department of Trade and Industry to develop the exotic leather value chain. ELSA’s revised standards and good operating practices based on internatio­nal best practices were subsequent­ly adopted by SACIA for use by the South African crocodile industry.

The standards can be used to benchmark crocodile farms for purposes of issuing and renewing crocodile permits. Currently, provinces decide on their own requiremen­ts for issuing or renewing permits.

Government’s regulation­s need to be aligned with industry best practices and guidelines to meet the internatio­nal market’s expectatio­ns on sustainabi­lity and ethical farming practices.

What future opportunit­ies do you see for the industry?

Firstly, SACIA would like to see an increase in the percentage of locally produced skins sold onto the premium leather market.

Secondly, SACIA would like to see government policies and interventi­ons that create an enabling economic environmen­t for investment in local manufactur­ing capacity. This would include training South Africa’s own artisanal workforce to ensure that an increased percentage of locally produced crocodile skins are tanned and used by local leather goods manufactur­ers. Crocodile leather products remain sought-after items by visiting tourists. Phone Stefan van As on 083 308 0099, or email him at

 ??  ?? ABOVE: According to Stefan van As, the South African crocodile farming industry urgently needs to develop and implement minimum standards in line with internatio­nal expectatio­ns.
ABOVE: According to Stefan van As, the South African crocodile farming industry urgently needs to develop and implement minimum standards in line with internatio­nal expectatio­ns.

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