Trade Pays Big Dividends for Crocodiles
BANGKOK If you want to save a wild animal, give it a price tag. Wild crocodiles in Australia's Northern Territory are now thriving because of a controlled harvest of the reptile, a leading expert on the animal said on Monday.
And without such a harvest, Dr. Grahame Webb said remote rural communities would have no incentive to protect a cold-blooded man-eater.
"The only way that people will protect something like a crocodile is if it is valuable," Webb said on the sidelines of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference in Bangkok. "I've been bitten on the leg by a croc, so I know that no one will put up with them without some benefit," said Webb, a zoologist who chairs the World Conservation Union's crocodile specialist group.
CITES is the global body that regulates trade in endangered animals and plants, and many of the debates come down to dollars and cents. But they can also be emotive, with conservation groups rushing to the defense of "poster animals," such as whales and elephants, who strike a chord with the public.
Humans don't relate as easily to big reptiles as they do to big mammals, and so trade in products of the former has not been as controversial.
"People don't really like crocodiles, so the NGOs don't grab them as a cause," said Webb.
He said complete bans on trade made people resent animals especially when they are big and dangerous.
"In 1971, we protected the crocs in Australia's northern territory when there were only about 5,000 left, only 500 of them adults," he said. "By 1982, there were 30,000, and there were big conflicts between crocodiles and humans. The public had not seen such numbers of the animal in years," he said.
Webb said a harvest of wild eggs was then introduced followed by the taking of some adults for their skins and meat. He said about 600 adults were now taken each year and 20,000 eggs, which are sold to "ranchers," who then raise the animals for commercial purposes.
As a result, farmers, fishers, and other rural peoples now had an incentive to conserve creatures, who prey on livestock and occasionally people as well. There are now some 70,000 crocodiles in Australia's Northern Territory.
"There is a myth that legal trade (in an animal product) stimulates illegal trade," he said.
Cuba and Namibia are seeking permission from CITES to loosen restrictions on their crocodile populations to allow limited commercial trade in the animals.
The two-week conference started on Saturday.