“CROCODILES are easy to sell,” said Than Htike, the deputy director of the Thaketa Crocodile Farm. “But we can’t do it until we get our certificate.”
The farm hasn’t sold a crocodile in nearly two decades. Nonetheless, it brands itself as a farm, prompting Yangonites and tourists to wonder—what kind of farm is the Thaketa Crocodile Farm?
But that is not the whole truth. Today, no one is making any money off Myanmar’s crocodile breeding industry. Entry into the Thaketa Crocodile Farm, which for the time being functions as a crowded crocodile storage facility, only costs K500 for locals and K1,000 for foreigners. In fact, the farm barely has enough money to feed its crocodiles, even with the support of the government; the farm staff only feeds them three times per month.
Luckily, kind locals come to the farm every weekend to help out. Grandparents, parents and children stand on a wooden platform a few metres above a shallow pond and toss fish into the reptilian orgy below. Children yelp as the crocodiles leap over each other and snatch fish out of the air with their long snouts.
Than Htike, 47, sat in front of a shiny, brown crocodile skin mounted on a board as he explained why the skin, which was taken from a crocodile that had died naturally several years ago and was processed outside the farm, was the only non-living crocodile skin the farm has ever seen.
He started his job as the man in charge of Yangon’s strangest wildlife institution five months ago, during which time has learned what few people know about the farm’s history. According to Than Htike, Myanmar’s crocodile breeding industry has changed several times in the years since 1968, when Yangon breeders first plucked saltwater crocodiles, or Crocodylus porosus, from the rivers around Bogale, Ayeyawady Region, for breeding. Their activities were eventually recognised by the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development, which established the farm in Thaketa Township in 1978.
Back then, the farm was a farm like any other—it bred animals and sold them for human consumption. In 1988, an American man living in Singapore visited Yangon and bought 100 of the farm’s roughly 1,000 crocodiles.
What did he do with them? I asked U Thein Lwin, 57, who has worked at the crocodile farm for over 20 years.
“I have no idea,” he said, feeling the scars left on his arms by years of encounters with an animal species that sees him as prey. “The farm was not very well-regulated at the time.”
But that changed in 1997, when Myanmar signed onto the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The CITES is an agreement between signatory governments to ensure that the trade of plants and animals does not threaten their species’ survival.
Under the convention, crocodiles cannot be sold commercially until they have been bred in captivity for three generations, Than Htike said. But no genealogical records were kept at the Thaketa Crocodile Farm for decades, so the farm cannot sell its livestock until three generations of breeding in captivity have been verified through DNA analysis. This process is further complicated, he said, by the fact that a Cambodian crocodile species was interbred with some of the Thaketa crocodiles at some point before he began working there.
The Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development is currently in the process of commissioning international experts to perform the DNA analysis. No one at the farm knows when the process will be completed. And until then, the farm will not sell any animals, though demand persists.
“About eight years ago, a Japanese buyer came to buy some crocodiles, but we didn’t have CITES approval. We had to turn him away,” said U Thein Lwin, the veteran crocodile farmer.
According to Than Htike, when the DNA analysis is complete and the farm receives the ministry’s green light to start selling its animals, its primary market will be wildlife sanctuaries in Thailand, where tourists flock to see saltwater crocodiles, which are the largest reptiles in the world.
Will the farm sell crocodiles for leather? I asked Than Htike. He did not hesitate to say it would, just as it did in its unregulated past.
“We don’t have the technology or expertise to process the skins on site. We will have to sell live crocodiles to leather producers,” he said.
Why can’t you just sell crocodiles that have died naturally? He said this is impossible. The skin becomes unusable if it remains on the body for more than four hours after the animal is dead. Furthermore, saltwater crocodiles have a lifespan of around 70 years; waiting for them to die would not be the best business strategy.
Instead, the live animals must be sold to people who know how to process the leather.
How do you kill a crocodile?
Than Htike smirked.
“Just stab them in the belly with a knife.”