Zimbabwe’s Crocodile Factory Farms Under Fire
Animals packed into dirty pools, concrete pits and slaughtered inhumanely for “luxury” bags and belts, say animal rights activists
Crocodile farming is a niche industry in which the reptiles are bred, raised, and ultimately killed to supply skins for luxury items like handbags and watch bands. In recent months, the industry has faced scrutiny for its treatment of the animals, sparked in large part by an undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Photo courtesy of PETA
The PETA investigation, released in June, documented the treatment of the animals at Padenga Crocodile Farm, one of Zimbabwe’s largest crocodile enterprises, which houses roughly 100,000 crocodiles at three separate facilities. Using an undercover investigator, PETA found that the crocodile slaughter process at Padenga involves stunning the reptiles using a bolt gun, pushing a scalpel down their spine, and jamming a metal rod into their skulls to scramble their brains. Though the process is legal in Zimbabwe, PETA believes it constitutes animal abuse. The exposé also uncovered cruel treatment at an alligator farm in Texas.
It's a process that Padenga’s farm manager, Welly du Preez, calls "scary, but very effective."
Du Preez agreed to talk freely with me when I visited the farm earlier this year on the condition that I not take any photos.
"During slaughter, the animals kick, flail tails, battling to escape death," he says.
Douglas Jenkins, aquaculture sustainability manager at the Africa Wildlife Conservation Fund, called the practices "a barbaric pursuit of profit." He adds, "I can't even mourn enough for the crocodiles killed this way.”
Once the crocodile skins are removed at Padenga, they are salted, handled for export at tanneries, and used to make high-end handbags, watch bands, boots, and belts. According to PETA, Padenga supplies skins to Hermès in France to be used for Birkin and Kelly handbags, which are sold for as much as $50,000 each. Each bag requires two to three crocodile skins.
According to Du Preez, so far this year, Padenga has shipped 43,000 skins to France, at $450 a piece. The company’s profits have soared by 41 percent in the last three years, as it fulfills its mission “to be the principal and preferred supplier of premium grade crocodilian skins to the luxury brand houses of the world.”
Although crocodiles are farmed primarily for their expensive skins, Padenga sells the crocodile meat as well. "One carcass of a dead reptile produces five-and-a-half kilograms of meat. We export 100 tons of crocodile meat every year to select markets in Europe and Asia," du Preez says.
Photo courtesy of PETA
At the nearby Nyanyani Farm, which I also visited, crocodiles are bred and killed in a similar manner. Here, 36,000 reptiles live in dirty pools of water without sunlight or emergency healthcare. Newly hatched crocodiles are transferred to a separate holding area so that mature female crocodiles can begin another reproductive process as quickly as possible.
The reptiles at Nyanyani are also fed an all-vegetable diet. "This makes them lean, improves the quality of their skins," explains George Pinto, the farm's site administrator.
According to Manu Lawaski, head of marine biology with the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species in Southern Africa, this diet is unhealthy since crocodiles are naturally carnivorous. "This is a painful experiment for the crocodiles,” he said. “Denying them a meat diet is improper.”
Lawaski also takes issue with conditions on the crocodile farms: “We have seen crocodiles with blood in their jaws. This is because of overcrowding.” He added that crocodiles are killed when they reach three years of age, compared to crocodiles in the wild that can live up to 80 years.
"Crocodiles in these business farms are denied natural styles of life and play like digging tunnels, hatching eggs slowly, or protecting young reptiles," he says.
Zimbabwe’s Nile crocodiles are listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international treaty that protects wildlife against overexploitation. Appendix II species are those that “are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled.” They may be traded with proper export permits when it is determined that trade “will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.”
Despite the CITES listing, crocodile farms can still collect wild crocodile eggs in Zimbabwe so long as they comply with regulations and limitations set by the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority agency. Farmers say that on-farm breeding reduces the need to collect wild eggs.
"To reduce our wild collection of eggs we cross breed inside our farms,” Pinto, the Nyanyana farm administrator, said. “Eighty-two percent of our eggs are now hatched in-house.”
Padenga’s Du Preez says local laws also require that farms like Padenga and Nyanyana release crocodile hatchlings into the forest around Lake Kariba to sustain wild crocodile populations. This policy, however, has sparked controversy with local communities, who argue that crocodiles threaten both livestock and humans.
According to Kenyo Siwela, chairman of the Kariba Tourism Operators Union, there are already too many crocodiles in the area. "They're killing children and elderly people,” he said. “Popular watersports like skiing or spear fishing are no longer safe due to crocodile menace."
PETA’s investigation got attention in the luxury handbag industry, though very briefly. In July, Jane Birkin, the British singer for whom the Birkin bag is named, said in a statement that she had been “alerted to the cruel practices endured by crocodiles during their slaughter for the production of Hermès bags,” and asked Hermès to remove her name from its handbags. However, Birkin dropped her request in September following an announcement by Hermès that it had identified an “isolated irregularity” in the slaughter process at a Texas alligator farm.