PUERTO PRINCESA, PHILIPPINES – A crocodile conservation center in the Philippines operating with Japanese aid has helped to stave off extinction for one species and is successfully farming another for its meat and skin.
The critically endangered freshwater Mindoro crocodile, Crocodylus mindorensis, might have become extinct without the center’s efforts, said Veronica de Guzman, who is director of the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center.
The center is also now farming the saltwater Indo-Pacific crocodile, Crocodylus porosus, for commercial purposes. That species is similarly under threat but is considered to be at lower risk, as it can be found in habitats ranging from India to Australia.
“We were able to (save the crocodiles) because we have the breeders, and we are producing more breeders,” de Guzman said.
There are now about 700 crocodiles of each species at the center, which is located in a village on the outskirts of the Palawan capital, Puerto Princesa.
Opened in 1987, the government-run facility was initially known as the Crocodile Farming Institute.
Japan’s then Overseas Technical Cooperation Agency provided funds for the center in response to a Philippine government request to help preserve the two species.
Conservationists had reported declining numbers amid hunting and loss of habitat due to dam construction, river rechanneling, pollution and human disturbance.
The project, which cost ¥1.7 billion in all, involved dispatching crocodile experts from Japan. They remained at the center until 1994.
The center was the first crocodile breeding farm in the Philippines registered with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
“There was a time when the government contemplated closing this to the public,” de Guzman said. “In 2011, they were planning to privatize this place. When I heard about it, I took it as a challenge and asked our national director to give me at least one year to run this place and prove that the government can run this place as much as the private sector can.”
De Guzman added that among the challenges she had to deal with were the work attitudes of the staff and policies that shifted every time new leadership arrived.
Other problems the center encountered had to do with finances or nature. The Japan International Cooperation Agency, the successor to OTCA, said that in 2005 the farm recorded a loss of $114,000 due to overpopulation. JICA noted that in 1998, several crocodiles escaped into nearby rivers after flooding from a typhoon.
“After one year of operating this under my administration, we were able to increase our income by 40 percent. And somehow, we were able to fix things, including the attitude and behavior of the people here,” de Guzman said.
She said that in February construction began on a breeding pen that uses less concrete, offering a more of a natural environment for one of the two species to inhabit.
“For Crocodylus porosus, we are actually producing them for economic value because we are also supporting the crocodile farming industry, primarily for skin production. We sell the foundation animals to crocodile farmers, and they breed and grow them. They can then sell the products,” de Guzman said.
The environment agency says there are seven authorized commercial operators in the Philippines, with the two biggest in Rizal and Davao del Norte provinces.
JICA said crocodile skins are highly valued and are priced by the centimeter because they are used in the production of luxury leather goods such as those from the Louis Vuitton and Hermes brands. The main attraction is the intricate pattern of scales on the animal’s belly.
In January, a group from Japan also expressed interest in supporting crocodile production in the Philippines for possible commercial purposes, de Guzman said.
The meat of Crocodylus porosus is sold to tourists and other specialty restaurants in the country. Some people consider it to be an aphrodisiac.
De Guzman said that while conservationists hope to release Crocodylus mindorensis back into the wild to reinforce shrinking populations, no release has yet taken place because of the danger to local communities.
“We have not yet released because not so many places are willing to take them. There are actually no takers,” she said.
The most recent recorded case of a crocodile attack in the country was on May 22 in Rio Tuba, south of Puerto Princesa City.
Because Crocodylus mindorensis is endemic to the Philippines, there is a strong case for helping wild populations to survive. De Guzman is calling for a comprehensive survey to identify areas where crocodiles might live and where humans could be barred from entering.
“If we have demarcated (the area), then it’s the human’s fault if he goes to the territory of the crocodiles,” she said.
Still, the center is actively trying to educate the public to appreciate the importance of crocodiles in the ecosystem by allowing people to tour the center and see the animals up close, as well as lending some of them to ecotourism parks elsewhere in the Philippines.
“We have interaction with the community so we can tell them the characteristic and natural behavior of these creatures,” de Guzman said. “We have to take pride in the Crocodylus mindorensis species because this can only be found in the Philippines.”