BY ZAPHNE PHILIP
SARAWAK is known for its man-eating crocodiles and the locals have been terrified of them since the existence of the man-beast conflict.
In fact, there is a popular Iban legend of a notorious crocodile nicknamed Bujang Senang that was supposed to be the reincarnation of a warrior who was killed many years ago. Apparently, the warrior had sworn to terrorise the descendants of the folks who had killed him.
Incidentally, in May 1992, a six-metre-long crocodile — dubbed Bujang Senang by the locals — was killed at a tributary of the Batang Lupar River in Sri Aman after it attacked an Iban woman.
Indiscriminate culling of the prehistoric reptiles had initially led to a reduction in their numbers in Sarawak but successful conservation efforts over the last 30 years have seen an increase in the population of the Crocodylus porosus, the scientific name of the saltwater crocodile species found mainly in the state’s estuarine mangrove swamps.
The female crocodile can grow up to three metres in length while the male can grow up to six metres and weigh between 640 and 1,100 kilogrammes.
Increase in crocodile sightings
However, Sarawak’s increasing crocodile populations have seen a substantial rise in human-crocodile conflict that has been causing much distress to the local communities who are greatly dependent on rivers as a source of livelihood.
In view of the rising numbers, the state authorities are encouraging people adversely affected by the crocodiles to take up commercial crocodile farming which can provide them economic benefits.
The Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) said that the “ability to conduct a strictly controlled sustainable harvest” of captive crocodiles for skin and meat products is not only economically feasible but will also retain viable wild crocodile populations.
According to a study carried out by SFC, which covered 45 main rivers in the state and a total distance of 2,108.38 kilometres, a total of 2,236 crocodiles were observed during the period 2012 to 2014, giving a relative density of 1.06 crocodile per km. The study estimated the population of crocodiles in the surveyed rivers at 12,000.
These findings confirm that the state crocodile conservation programme has met with considerable success. The Batang Samarahan river recorded the highest increase of relative densities (108 times) from 0.02 to 2.17 crocodiles sighted per km.
SFC chief executive officer Zolkipli Mohamad Aton said the more frequent crocodile sightings are a cause for concern for villagers dwelling near the rivers as the rivers are not only a source of income for them but also serve as their main transportation channel.
“Whenever there are cases of crocodile attacks, people would fear and hate them even more without knowing the cause of the reptiles’ aggressive behaviour.
“Crocodiles, in general, don’t disturb humans but when human activities encroach on their habitats or nests, they become aggressive,” he said, adding that last year, SFC received 12 complaints with regard to threats posed by crocodiles.
The crocodile is a protected species under the Sarawak Wild Life Protection Ordinance 1998 but hunting and culling of crocodiles are allowed — subject to the issuance of a permit by the Controller of Wildlife — when it is believed that they are a threat to the public.
In 2016, SFC introduced the Crocodile Management Plan to specifically address conservation and utilisation of crocodiles in Sarawak, as well as to ensure that culling is done in a sustainable manner.
Urging society to look at the positive aspect of the existence of crocodiles, Zolkipli said it can be lucrative to farm crocodiles for their skin which has high commercial value in international markets where there is good demand for crocodile skin from the producers of high-end accessories in Italy, France, Japan and the United States that cater to brands such as Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Birkin.
He said in order to penetrate the international market, the crocodile skin has to meet certain criteria in terms of quality.
“This is why crocodile farming has to be carried out professionally so that the product quality meets international standards,” he said, adding that the SFC is willing to provide training to those who lack expertise in crocodile farming.
Entrepreneurs wishing to start a crocodile farm must first apply for a permit from the Controller of Wildlife.
In Malaysia, all crocodile farms must also be registered with Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) as commercial captive-breeding facilities.
Cites is an international agreement among governments to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
SFC International Engagement Officer Rambli Ahmad said based on their study on crocodile populations between 2012 and 2014, an estimated 500 crocodiles — about five percent of the estimated crocodile population of 13,507 — can be harvested a year as it would not interfere with their continued population growth.
He also said that the optimal age to harvest crocodiles is three as that is when they yield high-quality skin and meat.
Currently, Sarawak has two crocodile farms but only one, Jong’s Crocodile Farm located about 30 km from Kuching, exports crocodile skin.
Pointing to the lucrativeness of crocodile farming, Rambli said in Australia crocodile eggs are sold to farmers at A$30 (about RM121) each.
“Local communities in areas where crocodiles are found are able to earn a good income from the sale of the eggs. To order to ensure a regular supply of eggs, the people also have to sustain the crocodile population in their areas. This is one of the positive aspects of taking care of the crocodile population because it is a source of income for the local community,” he said.
SFC deputy chief executive officer I Oswald Braken Tisen said the corporation is trying to convince the local communities in Sarawak to get involved in crocodile farming.
“So far, only Jong’s Crocodile Farm is marketing its products overseas but in low quantities. If the locals don’t have the expertise (to start a farm), we can give them the guidance and teach them how to operate a crocodile farm professionally so that they can penetrate the international market,” he said, adding that currently, only Australia and Indonesia are known to produce and export high-quality crocodile skin.
Cambodia has many crocodile farms but their products have no export value due to their inferior quality, he added. – Bernama