Friday, 30 March 2018

How Do You Deliver Crocodiles to Handbag Makers? Very Carefully – via Herp Digest

Farmers in Australia, supplying material for the hot fashion item, get creative to move reptiles across the Outback

A saltwater crocodile in Australia. PHOTO: EVOLVE/PHOTOSHOT/ZUMA PRESS
By Rob Taylor-Wall Street Journal, 3/23/18

SAVAGES ISLAND, Australia—In his latest attempt to satisfy the world’s snappiest dressers, Adam Lever recently found himself coaxing yard-long live crocodiles into “travel pods” made of pipes purchased from a plumbing shop. Mr. Lever needed to move the crocodiles without getting a scratch—on them.

The PVC pipes are the latest tactic in a man-versus-beast conflict that affects millions of dollars worth of goods in the global fashion industry. Damaged crocodile skins aren’t worth nearly as much when turned into boots and handbags—which can easily run $50,000. By placing thousands of juvenile saltwater crocodiles in the refrigerated tubes, Mr. Lever says he can safely move them vast distances across the Outback from far-flung hatcheries to his farm.

“A scratch on a croc is a massive thing,” said Mr. Lever, estimating even one could lower a skin’s value by up to 40%. “You wouldn’t be happy if you just paid a million bucks for a Ferrari and it had a scratch in the paint and a flat tire.”

A crocodile Birkin bag

The crocodile skin business is booming, with especially strong demand from Asia, and Australia’s crocs are coveted for their particularly fine skin patterns—American alligators tend to have horny backs—and because more of the hide can be used.

The animals are both culturally significant and an important income source for indigenous communities in the Outback, who collect the eggs by hand from swamps and incubate them until they’re hatched. Then, the juvenile reptiles are sold to farmers like Mr. Lever, who transport them to farms in less remote areas where they grow for a couple of years before the skins are harvested. A farmer can sell a high-end skin for about $1,000, while an egg can be worth about $35 to a collector. (Farmers also sell the meat, for food, and things such as claws and gall bladders for alternative medicines.)

Farmer John Lever adjusts a ‘croc pod’ used to transport the young saltwater crocodiles he raises for skins near Rockhampton, in Australia. 

Eventually the supply chain leads to the catwalks of Paris or the boutiques of New York, where it’s common for a customer to wait up to two years for a popular style. In 2016, an Hermès Birkin bag made of albino Nile River crocodile skin and encrusted with 245 diamonds set in white gold sold at auction for an eye-popping US$300,168 to a Hong Kong buyer, the most expensive ever. It was similar to one owned by Kim Kardashian.

To fetch and move animals with as many as 72 razor-sharp teeth and a notoriously bad attitude, farmers get creative. Saltwater crocodiles, which can grow to 22 feet long and weigh 2,200 pounds, are among the world’s largest ambush predators, using their teeth and strong jaws to clamp down on prey.

“Sometimes we collect eggs and the mother comes back. We hit her on the nose to make her go away,” says Otto Campion Bulmaniya, of the Arafura Swamp Ranger Aboriginal Corp. “Or sometimes we stay and talk with her, to make her calm down.”
Government regulations promote Outback collection of eggs to spread the economic benefits of the industry and support biodiversity, while at the same time impose quotas to protect the species.

One innovation in egg collecting is slinging someone into a wild crocodile nest from a helicopter to spare a heart-stopping walk through swamp and reeds. “Up here it’s like a little bit of Alaska. There are still freedoms,” said Grahame Webb, an expert in crocodile behavior who now runs the Crocodylus wildlife park and skin farm in Darwin.

Crocodiles at the Crocodylus wildlife park and skin farm in Darwin run by Grahame Webb. PHOTO: ROB TAYLOR/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Still, collectors must keep on the right side of the health and safety bureaucracy. The 73-year-old lamented a recent government directive for egg collectors to wear steel-capped boots as protection against bites. “Let me tell you, if an adult croc comes back the thing to do is run or get up a tree,” Mr. Webb said. “I find steel boots aren’t the best for climbing.”
At Ramingining, in a remote part of the Northern Territory, indigenous rangers pressed an old, out-of-order fridge into service as a temperature-regulating incubator, together with used aquarium equipment and a thermometer. To avoid overheating in the sweltering monsoon heat, they simply propped open the fridge door with a stick, said Mr. Bulmaniya.

Hatchlings were transferred into two large plastic “grow” bins, each holding 40 or so foot-long crocodiles until they were ready to transport. With the industry booming, Mr. Bulmaniya is planning a commercially sized hatchery able to hold almost 1,000 crocodiles in 22 bins, for completion later this year.
Australia accounts for 60% of the trade in saltwater skins, worth US$78 million a year in a global crocodile and alligator fashion sector worth up to US$1 billion, according to the Crocodile Farmers Association of the Northern Territory.

Australia’s edge over rivals in Asia and South America is cemented by its status as one of a few nations allowed to export saltwater crocodile skins into the U.S. under treaties safeguarding endangered wildlife. Wild saltwater crocodile numbers have recovered strongly since protection in the 1980s.

Some farmers move developing crocodiles in the egg, but rough Outback roads make that a fraught process. One bump can destroy an embryo. Moving live crocs presents other, sharp problems.

John Lever, Adam Lever’s father, once opened a truck with 200 juvenile crocodiles inside to find some had loosened themselves from restraining ties on their jaws. “They are pretty good escapists, and even a small one can do some serious damage,” said Mr. Lever, who runs a farm with his son on a low scrub spit known as Savages Island, ringed by mud flats near the southern edge of the Great Barrier Reef.


Employee Tiffany Smith at Vervain, a crocodile product shop in Darwin. PHOTO: ROB TAYLOR/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

That’s where the croc pods come in. While plumbing pipes have been used before to move hatched crocodiles, Mr. Lever’s Koorana Crocodile farm near Rockhampton said it was the first to construct a cluster of pipes to create a “pod.”
Each pod cluster holds between 60 and 130 crocodiles, in ventilated tubes built onto a pallet and loaded into a refrigerated truck. By lowering the temperature to around 64 degrees, the baby crocs become drowsy and less bellicose over a journey lasting up to a week.

Once in their new homes, the pods are removed from the truck by forklift and placed into a farm pen before a sliding-door lid is opened, allowing the crocs to slowly warm up in the tropical air.

“You open up the pods and you’ve got 70 pairs of crocodile eyes staring at you,” Adam Lever said. “For a heart-stopping moment you’re hoping like hell that the refrigeration worked and they don’t come rushing out in a waterfall of crocs.”

That’s happened a couple of times, he said, and “you have to move fast.”

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