Daniel Haller leans on a concrete wall of what looks like a fish pond gazing keenly at the animals inside.
His relaxed demeanour is assuring to visitors as Haller farms crocodiles for meat and skin.
“They are friendly animals,” says Haller as he smiles noticing the fear on our faces. “You only have to understand them and they won’t harm you.”
The 48-year-old, who is one of the largest crocodile farmers in the region, runs Nile Crocodile Farm in Kikambala, Kilifi.
For close to 20 years, he has domesticated the animals that are mainly found in rivers, turning them into a money-spinner.
Haller, who holds a Master of Science Degree in Aquaculture from the University of Stirling, Scotland, rears 40,000 crocodiles.
The son of Dr Rene Haller, an agronomist and founder of Baobab Trust Kenya, keeps the crocodiles mainly for skin which he sells to Heng Long Leather Ltd in Singapore. “Crocodile skin is used in production of wallets, handbags and shoes.”
MARKET FOR SKIN
“The skin is sold according to the belly width. The international market price for first grade skin of an animal which is five years old and about 190cm long is $150 (Sh13,350). The skin should be unblemished and high quality to get its full value, which reduces by 25 per cent if there is any blemish.”
Haller slaughters between 4,000 and 5,000 reptiles each year and preserves their wet-salted skin at three degrees centigrade.
“It is a business that requires a lot of attention to detail. You can lose all your money by producing skin which does not have the right quality. The risk is high and you can go bankrupt if after five years you do not get the right quality needed for the international luxury fashion industry. Quality standards also keep on increasing and the price fluctuates depending on demand in the global market.”
He sells the meat to tourist hotels and the local community at between Sh280 to Sh350 a kilo. In 2013 and 2014, Haller says he sold 18,364kg and 15,800kg respectively.
The reptile farmer got inspiration to rear the animals from his father. The senior Haller, a renowned environmentalist who once worked at Bamburi Cement Ltd, introduced crocodiles to eat dead chicken and sheep on his farm in the 1970s to avoid wastage.
“My father felt that he had to find something to eat the animals and birds. He experimented and found that crocodiles were the best option,” says Haller, who later studied aquaculture in mid 1980s and upon return to Kenya in 1990s, he partnered with Harun Muturi, now deceased, to start the farm.
“We got a loan of $380,000 (Sh34.2 million) from European Investment Bank. Muturi also provided the money to purchase the land. We later got a licence from Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to practice crocodile farming in 1996,” says Haller, adding that it is hard to value the farm since the worth of a crocodile is known when the skin is graded and the correct quality known.
A crocodile takes about five years to reach the culling age.
“I use 6,000kg of food daily to feed my 40,000 crocodiles. I feed the reptiles on animal innards from slaughter houses, cooked maize mixed with blood, meat and fish.”
Haller does not breed the crocodiles on his farm. And this is why; a crocodile starts laying eggs according to its length, at about 220cm which is around eight years.
“We have a centre along the banks of Tana River in Lower Tana Galili location where we engage residents to collect eggs for us between December and January left by the wild crocodiles. Each female lays about 32 eggs a year,” he explains.
“The eggs are delicate and if not handled correctly, they may not hatch. They should not be exposed to sunlight or temperatures above 36 degrees centigrade. Turning the egg also kills the embryo.”
Residents earn Sh20 for each egg collected and Sh25 bonus if they hatch.
After collection, the eggs are put in special field incubators.
“It takes between 76 to 90 days to hatch the eggs. Eggs are transferred three weeks before hatching starts to the farm’s incubators.”
After hatching, the young reptiles are kept in a greenhouse system with temperature regulated at 32 degree centigrade to give them the best metabolic rate to grow.
The animals do get sick from time to time. Some of the diseases are similar to those that attack chickens and they arise from the animal having stress due to bad management.
“Crocodiles are wild animals, you must always be careful when handling them to avoid getting bitten. The key, however, in the farming is to reduce their stress as much as possible so that they stay calm.”
According to Haller, the business is much regulated both locally and abroad as exports have to be traced from the source.
“There are strict conditions on monitoring, feeding and stock taking. You have to submit records to the KWS for monitoring and evaluation. Also, every season the operator must acquire a new licence for egg collection.”
Can a small farmer reap from crocodiles? “Yes, as long as he has food to feed them, particularly from slaughter houses or fish processing companies.
Papua New Guinea in the 1980s had many crocodile smallholder backyard farms. Families would hold between 10 and 50 animals. But I must confess the business requires substantial investment and knowledge.”
KWS Coast regional assistant director Mohamed Alio says a farmer intending to rare crocodiles has to apply for a licence stating where he will get his initial stock.
KWS officials will then visit the farm to inspect it and a licence will be issued.
During culling of the animals for meat and skin, another licence will be issued after the export market is disclosed.
The farmer should produce a letter from the destination company and country to be issued with tags for international trade.
“Once we get the documents, each skin is tagged with a serial number and we issue an export permit.”