There are two species of crocodile in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) inhabit both fresh and salt water and are endemic to the western Pacific, South-East Asia and Australia. Their skins are very highly valued for making fashion accessories such as handbags, shoes, purses, wallets and belts. The second species, the New Guinea freshwater crocodile (C. novaeguineae), is endemic to the island of New Guinea only and lives in fresh water. Freshwater crocodile skins are not as highly valued as the saltwater species.
Crocodile skins have been exported since the 1950s. In the mid 1960s large animals became over-harvested and the stock of wild animals rapidly declined. In 1966 it became illegal to sell crocodile skins with a belly width greater than 51 cm. This law reversed the decline of large wild animals, but resulted in greater harvesting of smaller animals. Crocodiles in PNG are hunted in the wild and are farmed. In places with extensive wetlands, villagers hunt wild crocodiles and sell the skins to traders. The skins are sold to export companies and sent to tanneries overseas. Young animals are sold to large commercial crocodile farms or raised in small village enclosures.
In the period 1990–1995, sales of crocodiles or crocodile skins generated income of almost one million kina per year for rural villagers. The value to villagers is likely to have increased considerably since then. It was estimated that 4% of the rural population lived in locations where crocodiles or skins were sold. Most young crocodiles sold to large farms come from Ambunti District in East Sepik Province. The bulk of skins from wild animals come from Gulf and Western provinces, but crocodile skins are produced in most lowland provinces.
The value of crocodile skin and crocodile meat exports was estimated in 2005 as K35 million. In 2006 the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) issued 68 licences for crocodile traders, 24 for buyers, 18 for exporters and 3 for crocodile farming.
Most skins exported from PNG are from freshwater crocodiles (60–70% since 1998). The number of skins exported from freshwater and saltwater wild animals has been 20 000–25 000 skins per year since 2001. Specialists in DEC consider that this level of export does not present a threat to the number of wild animals. As well, 5000–8000 skins from farmed saltwater crocodiles are exported each year. The total number of skins exported has been 25 000–33 000 per year (average 29 000) since 1998. There was a surge in the number of wild freshwater crocodiles caught and exported in 1997, presumably because they were easy to catch when stream levels were low during the major drought in that year, and people needed cash to buy food. Most exports go to Japan (about 70%),
Singapore and France.
Wild crocodile numbers are closely monitored by staff from DEC. If this monitoring is not conducted, exports of crocodile skin from PNG will be prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Monitoring by DEC staff over the period 1982–2006 indicates that the number of saltwater crocodiles is increasing and numbers of the freshwater species are stable in the middle and upper Sepik River region.
The largest crocodile farm in PNG is owned by Mainland Holdings near Lae. It had 51 000 saltwater crocodiles in 2008, which will generate about 10 000 skins per year for export. The crocodiles are fed in part on chicken carcasses from a poultry farm. For the past 20 years this company has sourced about half of its crocodiles from wild juveniles, with the rest from its own eggs and a limited number of eggs from wild animals. Since 2004 however, its stock has come from eggs taken from wild crocodile nests (about half), from farmed eggs (a third) and from wild juveniles (about one sixth). The wild eggs are taken from nests in the upper Sepik River in Ambunti District of East Sepik Province by Mainland Holdings and DEC staff. Villagers are paid K10 per viable egg. The wild juveniles come from a number of lowland provinces, including Oro (Musa Valley), West New Britain, Morobe (Umboi Island, Morobe coast, Watut River), Madang and Bougainville.
Small amounts of crocodile meat are sold to up-market restaurants in PNG and about 40 tonnes/year is exported by Mainland Holdings to Australia.