The laws and regulation CITES for crocodiles in South Africa are complex, with Nile crocodile farming affected by regulations as well as national legislation and provincial regulations. Not only do crocodile farmers need to comply with laws, but successful crocodile farming also requires time, money and lots of experience and knowledge about these reptiles:
It can take from three years (hatchling to slaughter size) to become profitable when crocodiles are large enough to yield commercially viable skin. When wanting to produce breed stock crocodiles, it can take up to ten years to start recovering start-up capital.
Money is also needed for the special diets, maintenance of pens, acquiring of broodstock, eggs and so on.
The knowledge and advice of technical advisors or established crocodile farmers will be invaluable.
A crocodile farm needs to have access to a large amount of fresh water. Water in crocodile ponds must be changed daily for small animals and longer for larger crocodiles. Water can be recycled and reused but it is recommended to use fresh water on young crocodiles and recycled water for adult animals. Cleaning ponds and pens, and water replenishing are carried out while animals are still in the pens. Take care to not cause them stress.
Crocodile ponds need to have the right water-to-land ratio. The Journal of Fisheries Science recommends a 3:1 land-water ratio and a long shoreline, with ponds built in a way that male alligators don’t see each other during mating season. This reduces fighting.
Breeding ponds should be 1.8 m deep, with drains. Water can be drained to capture crocodiles if needed. Also, space the fences at least 30 m from ponds to prevent them escaping by digging and climbing.
Crocodiles are tropical climate reptiles, so crocodile farming is generally suitable to warmer climates.
Crocodiles are cold-blooded animals and access to sunshine and shade is needed for the animal to regulate its temperature. Basking in the sun warms up its body while gaping to expose its tongue allows heat exchange.
They are sensitive to temperature changes. Even a 3°C change in their core body temperature can cause their metabolism to slow down by half, thereby retarding eating and growing. During cold winters in South Africa, this remains a challenge that needs to be carefully managed.
There are two forms of crocodile farming; captive breeding and ranching.
In captive breeding farming systems, adult crocodiles produce eggs which are incubated and the hatchlings raised until harvest size. In ranching operations, the crocodiles reared on these farms come from wild-harvested eggs or hatchlings.
Only captive breeding is practised in South Africa.
Crocodile farmers in South Africa are either primary producers with breeding stock and facilities to incubate and hatch eggs and rear hatchlings up to harvesting age or secondary producers, who buy hatchlings or juveniles.
The infrastructure and technology of crocodile farms can range from very low input to high input with sophisticated recording and control systems. Captive farming systems can be closed, semi-closed or open. In closed systems - which afford the best control - crocodiles are kept indoors for their full lifespan.
In a semi-closed system, crocodiles are kept indoors for two years, then moved to outdoor enclosures. In an open system, hatchlings will be placed outdoors from the age of 9 - 12 months.
Crocodiles can be farmed in free-range systems or in single pens. Single-pen systems have been controversial but supporters of this farming system feel it protects crocodiles better than they would have been in the wild.
A South African National Standard for the raising of crocodiles in captivity was published by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS). This guideline assists crocodile farmers with welfare standards for farming, breeding, harvesting and husbandry methods.
In addition, the veterinarians of Pretoria University’s Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute regularly check and advise on best practices concerning crocodile farming and harvesting.
Some crocodiles are kept for breeding purposes and are not harvested.
Crocodiles in farming systems reach puberty at around 2.2 meters and depending on the growth rate, this can be from the age of six to eight years. (In the wild this can be around 10 - 12 years). Crocodiles are mated and the females produce 25 - 40 eggs, usually in October. Crocodile eggs are gathered and incubated at specific temperatures.
The gender of a crocodile can be determined by the incubation temperature. Between 26℃ and 30℃ most females will hatch while eggs are incubated at 30℃ - 33℃ and will produce predominantly male offspring.
Before hatching, baby crocodiles will start calling from within their eggs to synchronise hatching. They will hatch by breaking their eggshell with a temporary ‘egg tooth’ on the tip of the snout.
Crocodilian diet changes with age but consists mostly of animal protein. They will not be starved into eating something they don’t like. They are cannibalistic and will eat their own and byproducts of the slaughtering process. Dead chickens from chicken farms and special diets consisting of innards, maize meal and blood also provide nourishment. Meat should be chopped into chunks that will be easy to swallow and any leftover food should be removed within 24 hours.
A crocodile’s growth rate and maturity depends on the climate (optimum temperature is 29 - 33℃) and food supply.
In the wild, crocodiles eat stones to help digestion, but it need not be part of a diet in a crocodile farm set-up. The animals will eat it if needed.
Adult Nile crocodiles are harvested from the age of three years. The most humane methods are employed, usually involving a shock to render them instantaneously unconscious.
There are three crocodile abattoirs in South Africa, all certified for export to the EU. Depending on the type of product, an abattoir can handle between 20 and 60 crocodiles per day.
Harvesting a crocodile for its skins requires hand removal of the skin to prevent cutting injuries. Harvesting for meat is a faster process. After skinning the crocodile meat is portioned and kept at 4℃ until sale.
Crocodile meat production is regulated under the South African Meat Safety Act (Act 40 of 2000) and specific regulations and veterinary procedural notices (VPN) apply to the slaughter and processing of crocodiles.
By Marinda Louw