Crocodile tannery opens

28 May 2008

South Africa's second dedicated crocodile leather tannery was due to open officially on March 1, though it has been conducting trials for some months. Le Croc Tanning, sister company to Le Croc Breeding Farms, will have the capacity to tan 2,000 skins/month. They expect to build up to that level within a year.

According to Le Croc managing director Stefan van As, Le Croc's own breeding farms could produce about 5,000 skins/year, and the balance would be procured from other farmers. He said 70% - 80% of the skins would be exported as crust, mainly to Italy and France, although there had been enquiries from Japan and the US. The balance would be supplied as finished leather to local customers. Van As said some of the tannery equipment had been partly in place when he bought Le Croc - then in liquidation - three years ago. Since then, the former investment banker has added some equipment and infrastructure ‘but the most important part has been perfecting the tanning process.' South African crocodile skin production has climbed by about 40% over the past three years, to about 55,000 skins/year but most of that growth has been fuelled by one company importing crocodile eggs harvested from the wild in Mozambique, according to the chairman of the SA Crocodile Farmers' Association, Stefan van As, and he doesn't believe there is significant further growth on the cards. ‘There are about 25 serious crocodile farmers in South Africa, people who breed, raise and slaughter', he said. ‘There are a lot of people breeding and raising small numbers of crocodiles but, to be commercially viable, a farmer needs to produce at least 2,000 skins of a decent size and quality a year. I don't think there's been anyone new in that category in the last three years.' Although crocodile has been enjoying a prolonged period as the most popular exotic leather, farming crocodile wasn't automatically a success, he said. ‘Most of the country - 80% - isn't suitable for crocodiles because of temperature, water or access to reliable food resources, and a number of people who've tried to farm in unsuitable areas, with climate-controlled pens, have failed. Others, who haven't reinvested in their businesses, are struggling with quality problems', he said. It takes about 15 years to establish a crocodile farm from scratch in SA, where most farm crocodiles are born and raised in captivity. ‘You can't just buy breeders in large quantities', he said. ‘Since 2000, the rand has appreciated against the US dollar so much so that in real terms farmers are earning less.' One of the major reasons the crocodile industry hasn't attracted more interest from other tanners was its structure, he said. ‘The popularity of crocodile leather is cyclical and, because of this, there are only about seven tanneries, in Italy, France and Singapore, which tan about 95% of the classic skins. ‘They have established relationships with producers. If you, as a producer, supply someone new in preference to one of them, it would be difficult to go back to them when the cycle changes. Crocodile skins aren't a commodity, like bovine wet-blue. People in this industry stick to their long-term relationships, and with good reason.' Of the four species used to produce ‘classic' crocodile leather - the Nile crocodile, Crocodylus niloticus, the New Guinea crocodile, Crocodylus novaeguineae, the Salt water crocodile, Crocodylus porosus, and the American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis, he said alligator dominated the international market with 400-450,000 skins/year, followed by the Nile crocodile, with 140-160,000 skins, the Salt water crocodile (40,000), and the New Guinea type (30-40,000). Far higher numbers of ‘non-classic' skins - primarily various Caiman species from South America - were also produced, he said. Nile crocodile skins come from three main sources - Zimbabwe (60-80,000 skins), SA (55,000) and Zambia (30,000), with a smaller industry in Kenya and wild eggs and hatchlings being sourced from a number of other countries. He said most of South Africa's crocodile skins were exported raw, generating about US$10.5 million a year. Beneficiation to crust and finished products would increase revenue ‘quite significantly'

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