Crocodile farms: is it cruel to keep these wild creatures captive?

Britain's first crocodile farm has just opened. But should these creatures be kept in captivity? And should we be eating them anyway? Sanjida O'Connell reports

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In multicultural Britain there are llamas in the Cotswolds, ostriches in Essex, buffaloes in Oxfordshire. The latest arrival to our shores are eight Nile crocodiles, which are being kept at a farm in Cambridgeshire. Andy Johnson, from Church Farm, Oldhurst, wants to breed these crocodiles and then sell their offspring for meat, a scheme he stresses is still experimental and could take up to 10 years. However, animal rights campaign group Viva! says it is shocked that the croc farm has been given the go-ahead by the Department for Environment, food and Rural Affairs (Defra). A Viva! spokesman says: "Viva! has long campaigned against the commercialisation of wildlife, and it seems that these magnificent creatures are the latest addition to the never-ending list of animals driven from the wild into factory farms."

Crocodiles are sometimes referred to as living dinosaurs: they roamed the earth 200 million years ago, alongside Tyrannosaurus rex and brontosaurus. They survived both the mass extinction of the dinosaurs and the Ice Age, yet their basic evolutionary design has changed little. Unfortunately, they have had more difficulty surviving the arrival of Homo sapiens. As trade in their skins flourished, many species were hunted to the brink of extinction - around 300,000 Australian saltwater crocodiles were killed between 1945 and 1972. The same fate happened to the alligator, although both species are now protected and their numbers are slowly rising.

Since two Australian species were taken off the CITES list (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which meant that the export ban on skins was lifted, crocodile farms began to flourish. Farms either breed crocodiles or can "harvest" them from the wild as eggs, juveniles or adults; the animals are referred to as "ranched" and will spend at least some proportion of their time in captivity. Licenced farmers are required to keep detailed records but in practice it is easy to flout the law and take more animals than they are legally entitled to. Pat O'Brien, from the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, says: "There are strong penalties for poaching but very few patrol officers. There would be little hope of a poacher getting caught." Worldwide, the legal trade in crocodilian skins (crocodiles, alligators and caymans) has tripled since 1977, rising to more than a million animals by 2002. The majority are farmed animals, but annually more than 90,000 are killed in the wild, and in excess of 255,000 animals are harvested from the wild and ranched.

Johnson, who also farms cattle, pigs and lambs, says that his motivation for starting a crocodile farm is purely for environmental reasons. He wants to protect wild crocodiles from being poached, and he is primarily interested in their meat, not their skins. "By supplying Europeans with home-produced crocodile, we can undercut the market value of illegally supplied crocodile meat," he says.

He says the meat "has a mild flavour - it's low fat, high protein, very healthy and humanely produced".

Others beg to differ. Viva! opposes keeping crocodiles because of how they would be housed and slaughtered. Ben Bradshaw, the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare, responded to Viva!'s concerns by saying: "There is no legal reason why crocodiles cannot be farmed in the UK." Bradshaw points out that in this country the crocodiles would be covered by the Welfare of Farmed Animals Act and by the 1995 Welfare of Animals (Slaughter of Killing) Regulations. However, neither of these acts makes any reference to crocodiles, animals which most people would realise might need to be treated somewhat differently from a pig or a chicken. Currently Johnson's crocodiles have plenty of room: they're housed in a tropically heated room that's 20 by 30 metres. According to Dr Harry Andrews, director of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust in Tamil Nadu, India, crocodiles need at least four square metres each and are not aggressive when kept together even at high densities, as long as they have been raised in this type of environment since hatching.

Dr Clifford Warwick, a reptile biologist, medical scientist and member of the Bioveterinary group in London, disagrees. He says: "There's not a lot I approve of in crocodile farming. Their biology and behaviour do not lend themselves to a captive life. To a casual observer - and that often includes the people who run crocodile farms who are not usually scientifically qualified - the animals may seem peaceful and relaxed. But an animal behaviourist can see that they are stressed."

Warwick says that a small number of aggressive individuals will dominate the others, preventing them from moving around. "In farms, 90 per cent of the injuries the animals suffer are directly related to the oppressive nature of their environment. As well as wounds from fighting, they develop abnormalities and deformities because they can't walk or swim and they are subjected to water that is occupied by too many animals and this distorts the bacterial balance so that their wounds become infected."

The other problem that Johnson, or at least, his crocodiles, could face in the future, is the difficulty of killing an animal with a two-centimetre thick skull. Defra legislation merely says that an animal should be stunned prior to slaughter, but how does one stun and humanely kill a crocodile? Andrews says that the quickest way is to shoot the beast through the head. Warwick agrees but with several caveats. "Shooting a crocodile with a hand gun or very powerful captive bolt can work, but it's not 100 per cent humane," says Warwick.

When a crocodile reaches slaughter-size, about six to eight feet long, its brain is the size of a finger and is housed inside a double brain case - in other words, it's encased in two layers of bone. "There is only one place on the skull where you can put any kind of projectile and have only one layer of bone. You need to get the right angle, which requires skill and detailed knowledge of anatomy," says Warwick. "If you shoot the bullet at a slight variance, the animal will be brain damaged and doomed to die - but not immediately."

Warwick has spent many years working as an inspector on crocodile farms and says that he has seen some terrible ways of killing crocodiles. One method used is to sever the spinal cord with a chisel, which can take five to eight blows with a mallet and merely paralyses the animal. Another approach is to cut its head off with a machete. "Few people would realise that an alligator or crocodile with his head cut off will be alive for an hour before it loses consciousness. Others use axes, baseball bats or mallets to try and smash the skull," says Warwick.

Warwick's final objection, though, is to our own health. "Even free-living alligators and crocodiles are notorious for harbouring a massive diversity of pathogens. When people get bitten by them in the wild, the real danger to life is blood poisoning - their bacteria are worse than their bite." Warwick's concern is that these bacteria do not get into the food chain: "Crocodile meat is a luxury item, we shouldn't have it in this country and from a public health point of view, we don't need this mess."

Crocodiles: the facts

* Crocodiles are reptiles and are therefore cold-blooded, relying on the sun to warm them. They use mud as a sunscreen to prevent dehydration.

* Females lay up to 70 eggs in a nest on dry land, which they guard for 90 days. The eggs need to be kept at a temperature of 27-34C to hatch. The exact temperature determines the sex of the young: males are produced at 31.6C, and females at slightly lower or higher temperatures.

* There are 23 different species of crocodilians worldwide.

* Crocodiles have a ferocious bite - up to 3,000 pounds per square inch; a labrador's is 100psi.

* Crocodiles are more closely related to birds and dinosaurs than to most other reptiles. The three are in the group Archosauria.

* The largest reptile in the world is the saltwater crocodile, which can grow to more than 7m in length.

* The name crocodile comes from Greek, meaning "worm of the stones".

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