In Sabah, environmentalists cry foul over ‘unsanitary’ croc farm

Julia Chan
Crocodiles kept at a farm in Kampung Kibambangan in Sabah which has been criticised for unsanitary and unsafe practices. — Picture courtesy of Danau Girang Field Centre

KOTA KINABALU, Aug 26 — A crocodile farm in Kampung Kibambangan, next to the Petagas river and surrounded by villages, is causing concern among environmentalists for its allegedly poor management and lack of safety measures.

The farm, situated on private land just outside the city centre here, is believed to have some 500 crocodiles of various sizes and ages, and has been operating for at least three years.

“There are two major issues with this farm. First of all, it’s a public health and safety issue ― crocodiles can easily escape from the farm particularly when it floods, like a few months ago in Penampang when they found a crocodile in Kampung Dungkahang during the floods,” said Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC) director Benoit Goossens.

“It is also an animal welfare issue: the crocodiles are kept in extremely poor and unsanitary conditions, packed in small concrete pits, and unable to move around.

“From our observation, it is clear that the place is in appalling condition, with roofs falling off and the whole building falling apart. However, despite the awful conditions, there were still live crocodiles being kept there — it is neither sanitary nor safe,” said Goossens, who is also a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Crocodile Specialist Group.

Crocs within our midst

Concerns about living near a crocodile farm started coming more than a year ago, even before the number of sightings reportedly increased within the west coast region of the state.

The farm’s proximity to a river running through Penampang is regularly blamed for the alleged increase in crocodile population, although authorities have denied this.

However, in June this year, Kampung Dungkahang’s Development and Security Committee faced criticism after a video of them slaughtering a crocodile found in the Moyog river went viral.

The villagers retaliated and said the presence of crocodiles has increased in recent years, and most likely got flushed out from the farm during the floods, and questioned the authorities for allowing the farm to operate in their midst.

“Before the farm was set up, there was hardly any news of crocodiles in the river and people could fish or swim in the river without worry.

“I don’t understand why such a farm is being allowed to run all this while with no safety measures at all. It is dangerous given its location, too close to human settlements and close to a river that is known to flood everytime it rains heavily,” said a resident who declined to be named.

“The crocodiles can easily escape into the Petagas river which runs through so many villages. How is this allowed to happen?”

It was learnt that the farm’s owner also runs a restaurant serving crocodile meat.

Permits to operate a crocodile farm are issued by the Sabah Wildlife Department.

Crocodile hunting is allowed under the state’s Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997 but only a few licences have been issued as the reptiles were listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and a protected species in Sabah.

Aside from the Dungkahang incident, crocodiles have been spotted in Likas Bay, a popular haunt for casual fishing and other residential areas along waterways.

Beyond safety, questions are also being asked about the farm’s impact on other areas including industrial zoning issues, given its proximity to a residential area; public health and biosecurity, due to the allege lack of proper fencing; as well as animal welfare and environmental issues.

Farm has rights to operate, but

Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga said that the farm obtained its licence to operate a few years back and is within its rights.

“I also visited the farm last month with the ministry’s permanent secretary, and it was not as people are saying. It’s a farm after all, not attractive, but functional,” he said.

“Actually the farm is very secure. Not much chance of a crocodile escaping but who knows even the most tightly guarded prisons in the world see inmates escaping.”

Tuuga said that he had however, asked them to improve conditions at the farm to meet international standards, and they “should” comply.

“The IUCN’s Crocodile Specialist Group only came out with their best management practice for crocodile farming handbook in 2016. We need sometime to comply with it,” he said when contacted.

There are also existing crocodile farms in Sabah which are operating with a licence and supply crocodile meat to restaurants and export the skin of the crocodile for use as leather.

Tuuga also dispelled rumours that there was “an increase” in crocodile captures in Penampang.

“We have caught crocodiles from other areas, but we have never received any requests to capture crocodiles from Penampang,” he said.

Last year, Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga said that the department was investigating the farm but did not comment on why it was allowed to operate with such lax safety conditions.

They also announced that they would run a culling and trapping exercise for crocodiles in areas where the reptiles have attacked humans.

A survey on crocodiles and its population is also being carried out by Danau Girang Field Centre in the hopes of producing an action plan for the State soon. The plan which will address human and crocodile conflicts, is expected to be ready in 2020.

Crocodile conflicts here have been on the rise. Most recently, two crocodiles were caught in two separate locations: Kampung Anak, Kinarut, and the river near the Kelly Bay Resort, Tuaran by the wildlife department on July 26 and 29, and were intended for auction.

However, the auction had to be called off and its public relations officer Siti Nur’ain Ampuan Acheh said that they had run into some “technical issues”.

It was later learnt that the crocodiles were in such bad shape from being tied up for several days that one had died from its wounds and another had to be euthanised.