South Africa’s small crocodile farming industry has high hopes of breaking into the lucrative European market by revising its husbandry practices and infrastructure to produce faster-growing, bigger animals that have better quality crocodile skin.
It believes this can be achieved by introducing an accreditation system for producers. The industry, which five years ago had no specialised crocodile tanneries, also hopes to increase local production of crocodile skin leather products within the next five years.
SA has 40 registered crocodile farms, but only about 10 are commercially productive and provide about 15% of classic crocodile skin for the world market, exporting about 55000 skins a year.
Nile crocodile skin, with their boneless underbellies and resultant soft leather, are produced in SA, Zimbabwe, Zambia and a few other African countries.
SA’s biggest export market is currently Asia, where non-branded products are produced. The European market, known for its luxury branded products like Hermes, Gucci, Coco Chanel, Prada and Louis Vuitton, has extremely high standards in terms of skin size and quality requirements, which most South African crocodile skin currently does not meet.
South African Crocodile Farming Association (Sacfa) acting chairman Pit Süssmann said yesterday that the biggest challenge facing the niche industry, which boasts a combined R210m annual turnover in raw and processed skins as well as meat, was not increasing the number of farms but the quality of the crocodile skins coming from existing farms.
"International buyers want larger size crocodile skin and improved quality, so instead of increasing the number of farms, we are on a drive to improve quality, which is tough going because other countries further north have better climatic conditions," says Mr Süssmann, manager of the Izintaba crocodile farm outside Pretoria.
Crocodiles are extremely sensitive to temperature and only a 3°C variance in their core body temperature can slow their metabolism by half, hampering their ability to absorb food and grow.
Competing against other African countries with warmer climates and shorter winters, South African farmers, located mostly in the country’s northern areas, expend a higher percentage of their costs on heated environments for the animals, pushing up already capital intensive operations.
It can cost up to R25m to set up a farm with 10000 animals capable of producing 3000 good quality skins a year.
Mr Süssmann says Sacfa wants to see farmers consolidate their efforts and resources to ensure better quality crocodile skin.
According to Stefan van As, MD of the Le Croc farm and tannery, the European market takes about 80000 to 100000 Nile crocodile skins a year and analysts forecast 7%-8% growth in luxury goods, including crocodile leather goods, in the next three years.
Mr van As says that if SA can make bigger inroads into the European luxury market, which offers between 30% and 50% more for classic crocodile skin than Asia and elsewhere, the country’s three crocodile skin tanneries will become more viable and this could lead to increased local manufacturing.
"We are hoping over time to start looking at manufacturing products. We are talking to the Department of Trade and Industry with a view to involving fashion designers and improving capacity for manufacturers in the industry.
"If all goes according to plan, we hope to establish minimum standards on production and improve quality. If we can sort out our production challenges, and create the volume and standards required, we could in the next five years significantly increase skin exports and the local tanning and luxury leather goods manufacturing capacity in SA," he says.
Given the high cost of production and sometimes volatile international markets, some farmers supplement their income with other farming operations or open their farms to tourists.
However, another marketing avenue that could open up for crocodile farmers in the future is the health industry.
"Crocodile meat is eaten by the Chinese in the belief that it can treat respiratory ailments, but this is not scientifically proven. In SA there’s been little research into the healing properties of crocodile products but we’ve moderated recent research that showed promising, quick healing of skin conditions when using crocodile oil," says Mr Süssmann.
Already some entrepreneurs produce a crocodile oil extracted from crocodile fat to treat skin ailments such as acne, eczema, bed sores, discolouration, athlete’s foot and even nappy rash.
Commercial crocodile farming, which is strictly regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, has helped save dwindling crocodile populations worldwide from being hunted to extinction for their skins. The strict quality demands in the marketplace have rendered wild crocodile skin worthless as they do not meet the high standards set by the international skin trade.
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