International Trade & Conservation
Historically, the social value of crocodilians was largely restricted to them being dangerous pests, hunted without regulation. The hunting was incentivised, and continued unabated, when skins became economically valuable. For many Indigenous people, the hunting of crocodilians and harvesting of eggs, for food, has occurred for millenia, sometimes governed by complex cultural systems and values. At the same time, wetlands were being converted to agricultural farmland, for commercial food production. By the 1960’s, reducing wild crocodilian populations because they were pests, was overtaken by social concerns about possible extinction. Yet for many countries, the institutional and legal frameworks needed to regulate wildlife conservation, management and use were embryonic.
The impact of crocodile farming, in general, has been the reduction in poaching of wild crocodiles for the international leather markets. Poaching of crocodiles from the wild for traditional medicine remains, but its impact appears to be localised in certain areas. Fostering relationships and supplying products for medicinal use will contribute to crocodile conservation and serves as a detraction to exploit wild crocodile populations both inside and outside protected areas.
Legalised International Trade through CITES:
In the 1960’s, International trade was recognised by IUCN, the world recognised environmental protection agency, as the fundamental process linking supply from countries without the capacity to regulate, to demand, within developed consumer nations. IUCN championed the cause of an international legal instrument to regulate trade, which saw the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (“CITES”) come into force in 1975. The Parties to CITES have all established better legislation to manage wildlife in trade. and comply with CITES. For species in trade conservation and management programs now exist. South Africa became a member state of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1975 and in 1992 trading in South African crocodile skins produced from captive breeding operations was permitted by CITES.
International Crocodilian Farming:
International Crocodilian farming was developed in the 1950’s and 1960’s, firstly as a mechanism for the ex-situ production of crocodile skins, and later as a mechanism for restocking and supplementing wild populations. Farms have played a central role in avoiding extinction of crocodilian species in trade. In many remote regions, revenues derived from sustainable harvest of crocodilian eggs or juveniles provide incentives to local communities to protect and sustain wetland environments, rather than convert them to other forms of productive land-use.
Legalised trade has contributed significantly in the reduction in poaching and hunting of wild crocodiles used for commercial trade. Some localised illegal poaching, mainly for supply to the traditional medicines and witchcraft still remain. Reprisal killing of crocodiles and destruction of nests occur in response to attack on humans and livestock by people living close to the same water resources.
Nile crocodiles were severely exploited for their skins in an uncontrolled manner throughout their distribution in Africa, during the early and mid-19th century. They had largely been exterminated in the 1900’s having been classified as vermin. More recently declines outside protected areas have occurred due to increased agricultural activities, human encroachment and loss of habitat. In the early 1990’s the total wild Nile crocodile population in South Africa was estimated to be around 9500. The most recent 2017 – 2019 aerial count of the wild Nile crocodile population is 10 663, mainly occurring in protected areas. In contrast, the productive breeding populations in private ownership now exceeds 16 500 mature breeders.
The Nile crocodile in South Africa :
Throughout its distribution in Africa, the Nile crocodile has long been associated with spiritual power and exists within a great diversity of human cultures, in a variety of social and economic contexts.
Crocodile farming is recognized by the South African government as a participant to the overall biodiversity economy of the country. The crocodile industry supports a wide range of research that indirectly benefits conservation, has offered its support for the monitoring of wild populations and is committed to supply crocodiles for reintroduction to the wild, if required by conservation agencies.
Based on several successful conservation programs, protection of wild crocodile populations outside protected areas usually succeed when direct economic incentive is made to local communities living close to the wild populations. The crocodile industry and South African government is collaborating to develop partnerships and incentives for communities that live near waterbodies where wild crocodiles occur. These initiatives include skills development programmes and job creation within the wildlife tourism and related activities and by introducing communities to commercial crocodile farming businesses.
The growth in Nile crocodile populations in private ownership in South Africa was enabled through legalised trade in crocodile products. The South African Constitution recognises the ecological sustainable utilisation of natural resources. Local legislation and regulations have been adopted to promote, control and protect utilisation of wildlife, including wild crocodile populations outside of protected areas.