July 22, 2005

Honduras Crocodiles Safe from Hunters, Not Handbags

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- A writhing mass of crocodiles slithers out of a muddy pond, the animals snapping their blood-spattered jaws shut on hunks of raw horsemeat and gulping them down in one.

For the group of onlookers standing right in front of the carnage, with no fence to protect them, it is hard to trust the guide's assurances that the crocodiles are too well-fed to bother attacking.

Luis Reyes, manager of the Cocodrilos Continental crocodile farm in northwestern Honduras, hopes to attract busloads of tourists for the adrenalin-packed experience, held every week.

Yet visitors might be less enthusiastic to learn that for the 1,000 crocodiles wallowing in the farm's mud-filled ponds, there are another 9,000 who will never see the light of day.

Instead, they go from an incubator shed to pitch-black swelteringly hot "fattening tanks" -- artificially heated to make the hatchlings grow faster. Once fully grown they are taken out, killed and skinned to make handbags.

What set out to be a conservation project in the 1990s amid concern that hunting was killing off the native population of American crocodiles, or Crocodylus Acutus, has become a lucrative business that so far has not returned even one of the reptiles to the wild.

"People used to hunt them freely. The idea of the farm was to save them from extinction, to put them back into the wild. But studies show there's now an overpopulation," Reyes said.

The farm is approved by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, as a project that does not endanger the species. Yet many question the ethics of breeding exotic species merely to be made into luxury goods.

"We originally captured 320 wild crocodiles and today we have 10,000," Reyes says proudly. "We are hoping for 6,000 births this year and our goal is 25,000 births annually."


The farm does not appear to use brutal killing methods reported by animal rights groups at other farms around the world, such as clubbing reptiles to death or skinning them alive and leaving them to die slowly in agony.

The crocodiles look healthy and Reyes says they are killed with a quick shot in the back of the neck before skinning.

Yet animal protection groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, say breeding for fashion is wrong, especially without controls on conditions.

"Factory farming is inherently cruel, even if animals aren't being killed with baseball bats," said Lisa Franzetta at U.S.-based PETA. "The animals aren't treated as sentient beings, they're just units of production."

Staff at the Honduran farm monitor the breeders -- some 900 females grouped into 140 ponds with one male in each -- and remove and incubate any eggs within hours of them being laid.

Once hatched, the babies are crammed, hundreds at a time, into stifling brick and aluminum tanks where sunlight only pierces the darkness when the hatchlings are fed or hosed down with soapy water. They spend three to four years there.

"We change their metabolism so they grow faster. In the wild they grow 1 foot a year, here it's 3 feet," says Reyes, explaining the use of heating and daily feeds.

Once matured, a few lucky ones with skin defects go into the breeding ponds. The rest become handbags, belts and shoes.

"It's despicable to say they are doing this for conservation when it's about selling a fashion item," said Franzetta. "If their concern was for the animal's well-being they wouldn't be raising them to be shot in the back of the head and made into a pair of tacky shoes."

The farm sold roughly 2,500 skins last year for about $200 each and its goal is to sell 10 times as many. It also sells the tasty white meat to classy Honduran restaurants.


Animal rights aside, Honduras needs to exploit all its natural resources to claw its way out of extreme and widespread poverty.

Eyeing dollars from tourists, who come to Honduras for its jungle reserves and Caribbean scuba-diving, Reyes has stocked a gift shop with crocodile heads, teeth, "asthma-curing" crocodile oil and even crocodile claw backscratchers.

Critics say a better tourist pull could be a tour to see crocodiles in the wild, which could also create more jobs.

Otherwise, they point to farms in Australia where hatchlings are raised naturally in large open lagoons.

"It's hard to regulate farms because establishing animal welfare rules requires national legislation," said Joaquin de la Torre at global animal welfare group IFAW in Mexico.

"How can you go to this Honduran farm and demand they put fewer crocodiles to a tank if there is no law to back you up?"

IFAW is pushing for an animal welfare law in Mexico, where exotic species are at risk from smuggling and deforestation, but tiny Honduras has enough on its hands fighting poverty, AIDS and violent criminal gangs.

"Honduras is just too poor. Across Central America the last thing money is spent on is animals," said de la Torre.