Thai crocodile farmers want trade restrictions eased

SRI RACHA, Thailand (AP) — Crocodile farmers in Thailand are coming up with a new approach to saving the dwindling number of endangered wild crocodiles in the country. They want to loosen regulations on cross-border trade in reptiles and their parts to boost demand for products made from those bred in captivity.

With only around 100 Siamese crocodiles living in the wild in Thailand, the species is technically on the verge of local extinction. Crocodile breeders, meanwhile, raise millions of animals in captivity, but don’t fare as well. The coronavirus pandemic has devastated sales of their products due to an almost complete shutdown of the lucrative market of visiting tourists.

In response, Thailand’s crocodile industry, whose $200 million in annual sales have plummeted nearly 90% during the pandemic, is promoting a two-track solution it hopes can benefit itself. as well as reptile species. As well as seeking a relaxation of strict regulations on international trade in their products, they are leading an effort to repopulate Siamese crocodiles in the wild.

Although the industry has its roots in catching wild crocodiles, ranchers and traders argue that a successful and well-regulated agricultural business can help rebuild the population of wild crocodiles.

Proponents of relaxing trade rules believe that the success of breeding Siamese crocodiles on farms means it is no longer profitable to hunt them in the wild, and that a thriving commercial industry will help fund conservation projects.

Thailand will propose relaxation of rules on the trade in Siamese crocodiles at next week’s meeting in Panama of the 184-nation CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The Thai proposal aims to change the current listing of Siamese crocodiles from Appendix I, a category with extremely strict trade rules for endangered species, to Appendix II, with more relaxed rules that impose fewer regulatory constraints on buyers who import the products.

Yosapong Temsiripong, head of the Thai Crocodile Farm Association and owner of Sriracha Moda Farm, said it would help revive the battered industry, making it easier to export meat to countries like China and, more importantly , from crocodile skins to major foreign fashion brands. for handbags and shoes. Relaxed rules would help Thailand compete with the United States, Zimbabwe and Australia, which are major exporters of crocodile species that are not in the most endangered species category.

“For the past two years, during the pandemic, the crocodile industry has been badly affected as tourism is the main source of our income. When there were no tourists, our business suffered a lot,” Yosapong said. “Our exports have also been affected. We hope that if we can downgrade the Siamese Crocodile, then we can enter more markets, and our products can be accepted by global brands.

Wild Siamese crocodiles, once found in abundance in slow-moving rivers, streams and lakes in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, were decimated in the late 1990s due to hunting and trade uncontrolled, as well as economic development that has reduced their natural habitats. . It is believed that only around 400 Siamese crocodiles remain in the wild, mostly in Cambodia.

Promoting commercial agriculture and crocodile conservation are compatible goals, said Bancha Sukkaew, deputy director general of Thailand’s Department of Fisheries.

“The species remains a protected species. Those authorized for sale and export must come from farms. So we can guarantee that trade will only be from farms. Second, we have protected area management plans and crocodile release plans that have been approved to be carried out every year.

Thai authorities are committed to protecting the wild population, with plans to increase it from around 100 now to 200 over the next 10 years, he said.

Previous proposals to relax trade rules for Siamese crocodiles, however, were rejected.

Steven Platt, a herpetologist with the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society, said more should be done to save Thailand’s wild Siamese crocodiles before opening the door to increased trade. Those efforts should include a more robust crocodile release program, he said.

Neighboring Cambodia and Laos are leading efforts to boost wild populations with regular release programs, said Platt, who has spent years working on crocodile conservation. Both countries are believed to have stable and viable populations, which some experts say is not the case in Thailand. Thailand’s release of 50 crocodiles between 2006 and 2019 is relatively low compared to Laos, where around 70 crocodiles were released this year alone.

“Thailand has the best system of national parks, real protected areas that work. They are well governed. They are well managed. They have science personnel, law enforcement personnel, and that’s unique in the area. And there is… huge potential for Thailand to take the lead in Siamese crocodile conservation,” he said. “And we just don’t see that.”

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