Thursday 5 March 2020

Crocodile farmer to change focus after 40 years in the industry – via Herp Digest

John Lever has been catching, nurturing, breeding, showing and selling crocodiles from his Queensland farm for almost 40 years, but don't go comparing him to Steve Irwin.

Key points:
John and Lillian Lever opened a crocodile farm near Yeppoon in 1981
The Koorana Crocodile Farm houses up to 5,000 at a time, and sells skins and meat
These days, skins are not making a profit, so the farm is downsizing and will focus more on tourism

Born in Melbourne, Mr Lever, 77, opened one of Queensland's first crocodile farms in 1981 after studying at an agricultural college and then working at the CSIRO — a job he said became "boring".

In the early years of the business, Mr Lever traded crocodiles with Steve Irwin's father, Bob, for display at Australia Zoo.

"I got on really well with Bob and then when Steve started to grow up and got this passion about protection of everything — not conservation, protection of everything — he and I parted ways," Mr Lever said.

"We both love crocodiles — he loved them.
"I admire [the Irwins'] passion for crocodiles, I don't admire the philosophy of protectionism.”
The Koorana Crocodile Farm houses anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000 crocodiles at a time.

"It is a commercial farm, we make no apologies for that," Mr Lever said.

"Our cash flow comes from selling skins and meat.

"I'm a mad keen crocodile conservationist, mad keen, and really unless you make them worth money it's hard to conserve them.

"This is a potentially dangerous, unloved animal.

"Most people only want to conserve the things they love, only love the things they understand, and only understand those things they're prepared to share time and space with.”

Wild crocs as pets

Mr Lever has provided a home to many wild crocodiles over the past 40 years with the help of his wife, Lillian, and four sons Simon, Matthew, Jason, and Adam.

The farm recently lost beloved five-metre, one-tonne crocodile Rocky who grew up alongside Adam.

"It's a shame when you see these big powerful replicas of dinosaurs, survivors of the past, in their demise. It's really sad," Mr Lever said.
"When Adam started doing the tours, Rocky was his favourite."

Rocky was not your average crocodile. He spent the first part of his life as a family pet in the Torres Strait Islands.

"He was caught in a fish bait trap on Thursday Island and the guy who caught him thought he looked so cute that he'd take it home and give it to his kids as a pet," Mr Lever said.

"So the little crocodile went into the family home, was kept in the bathroom for a while and then as it got bigger they put him out in a tank, so they had a separate area for him.

"But all the time when the kids had a bath, Rocky was in the bath with them. He was a pet.”

Rocky's unusual upbringing meant he arrived at the farm in 1982 with a unique personality.

"When you get a crocodile from the wild they get really spooked with household sounds like human conversation and music, the smells of a household … but here we had a crocodile [who had] grown up with all of that," Mr Lever said.

"When he arrived here at 1.8 metres long and about 20 kilograms, we were astounded to find that he ate the next day and I thought, 'Wow, this is good’.

"Walking up to his pen, he didn't rush to the water and try to hide. He just stayed out and looked at us lovingly and so he became one of our favourites really early on.
Rocky died in early January from organ failure caused by a suspected infection.

His head and skin will be treated and displayed on the crocodile farm's restaurant ceiling in honour of his life.

Crocodile library

As well as selling crocodile meat and skin, Mr Lever supplies young crocodiles to schools, zoos, and other demonstrators across Australia.
"The law says [demonstrators] are not allowed to use [the croc] if it's over 1.2 metres long," he said.
"We started supplying crocodiles at about 70 centimetres long and then when that crocodile got to 1.2 metres long, they could send it back to us and we'd give them another one.

"From our point of view, someone else is paying for the rearing of that crocodile and we get it back — because they're always kept on their own — in pristine condition, absolutely lovely condition and very quiet.
"We didn't have a problem with aggression or anything like that with these crocs.”
Mr Lever sells more than 30 crocodiles a year to individuals and businesses.

"We've already sold a five-metre one to Dubai, the one in Melbourne aquarium is ours, there's one in Istanbul as well," he said.
"In Victoria and South Australia, you're allowed to have crocodiles as a pet, so we're into the pet trade as well."

Where to next?
Selling crocodile skin and meat has been the farm's main focus for the past 40 years, but Mr Lever said his focus had changed.

"I was going to be retired about 20 years ago. It didn't happen, it's not likely to happen now," he said.
"Financially the international industry has had a downturn, and this is very sad for us at this stage because we've got all of these crocodiles on the farm ready to sell.”

With around 3,000 crocs, they go through about a tonne of chicken necks and heads each week.
Mr Lever said keeping the crocs clean and well fed was a big investment.

"We've got all this investment in these crocodiles and the amount of money we get for the skins won't even pay for the food that was spent over that four years," he said.
"We've got a change in philosophy now. We're going to focus more on tourism.

"For the past five years, every spare dollar we've had has gone into building infrastructure to grow better skins.

"Now we're going to downsize the number of crocodiles. We're not collecting from the wild anymore.

"We're just going to get the eggs we produce on the farm and that's going to be enough.”

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