By Gitonga Njeru Business reporter, Kenya
If you are working in an enclosure full of crocodiles, don’t turn your back on them to answer your mobile phone.
Sadly that is what one member of staff did in May at Collins Mueke’s crocodile farm in eastern Kenya.
“He was talking on his phone not aware of his surroundings,” says Mr Mueke, 62. “He died while getting treatment in hospital.
“Another worker lost his index finger while handling a young crocodile just a few weeks old. It can be a scary place here, but you have to move on and earn a living.”
Welcome to the lucrative, but dangerous, world of crocodile farming.
If you are of a nervous disposition, you probably wouldn’t consider farming Nile crocodiles.
The largest species of African crocodile, it is one of the world’s most deadly predators.
Growing to five metres (16ft) in length, and typically weighing as much as 750kg (118st), it is renowned for its aggressive nature.
In the wild attacks on humans are commonplace. While exact figures are not available due to incidents going unreported, the Nile crocodile is said to kill hundreds of people in Africa every year.
Mr Mueke has more than 33,000 of the crocodiles at his 300-acre facility in Kitui County, some 180km (112 miles) east of the capital Nairobi.
Led by demand for crocodile meat from China, but also rising domestic sales to the restaurants of upmarket tourist hotels, he says that business has never been better.
“Each crocodile… can fetch you about 5,000 to 7,000 Kenyan shillings for the meat (£30 to £53; $50 to $69),” says Mr Mueke.
The meat is white in colour, and said to taste similar to chicken.
Mr Mueke adds that in addition he can sell the hides of the animals for 2,500 Kenyan shillings, which go on to become shoes, handbags and belts.
The financial result of all this, Mr Mueke says, is that he can double his money for each of the 3,000 crocodiles he slaughters every year.
“Crocodile farming has its challenges, but the most surprising result is the profits. You can make more than 100%,” he says.
Mr Mueke’s crocodiles live in sunken enclosures that contain both ponds and dry land.
They are fed with fish, blood-soaked maize, and other meats.
The enclosures have steep walls to prevent the crocodiles from escaping, but the farm’s 246 workers have to climb down into them on a daily basis. This is so they can trap and kill crocodiles that have reached the ideal age for eating – eight years old.
Staff also have to collect eggs so that baby crocodiles can be hatched and reared in separate enclosures, and do general cleaning work.
Veterinarian Odhiambo Ojamong says cleanliness is vital to help prevent diseases.
“You have to observe the crocodiles daily for diseases and even injury,” he says.
“An injury to a crocodile through infighting among the populations can cause serious fatal diseases and instant death.
“But the biggest disease a farmer must avoid among crocodiles is crocodile pox. It has no vaccine, and can wipe out the whole stock.
“So the best thing to do about this is always observe good hygiene.”
The crocodile farming sector is now growing at 22% per year across Africa, according to industry estimates.
South Africa leads the pack, with total exports valued at about $73m (£56m) per year. It is followed by Zambia ($65m), Kenya ($62m), and Zimbabwe ($30m).
Almost 85% of exports go to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan combined. The next biggest export market is the wider Middle East region.
In Kenya there are now 21 crocodile farmers, but a further 60 have applied for the required licences, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), a government agency.
Paul Gathitu, spokesman for the KWS, says it has no problem with the farming of Nile crocodiles because the animals are not endangered.
Yet Mr Ojamong cautions that the start-up costs are onerous. He estimates that to set up a crocodile farm in Kenya you would need about $500,000 to cover everything from land purchases, consultancy fees for experts in the field, and securing your crocodile breeding stock.
Mr Mueke, who established his farm more than a decade ago, adds: “There are a lot of expensive infrastructure requirements… but the returns you get will make you not regret [the initial outlay].”