How did a Colombian zoologist end up living in Darwin working with one of the world’s most dangerous reptiles?
Giovanna Webb (pictured here at right with Westpac's Julie Rynski and RIRDC runner-up Isobel Knight, far left), who migrated from Colombia in 1997 to Australia, says, “love and crocodiles” brought her to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Giovanna who had worked as a technician in reptile farms in Colombia having completed university in 1992, had, as part of her professional development, attended conferences and workshops as well as working with industry experts on animal management. It was in this context that she met Professor Grahame Webb, an Australian involved in crocodile research and farming with his own business in the Northern Territory, Crocodylus Park, situated in Darwin.
“I kept meeting Grahame at crocodile conferences and crocodile workshops and then after maybe five years, we thought, let’s try our luck together,” says Giovanna, explaining how and why she eventually found herself in Darwin working in a crocodile park.
“At Crocodylus I was no longer a technician in the field. Instead, I was in a much more strategic business development and marketing role travelling to world fashion centres, learning about exotic skins, tanneries and manufacturers. It was nice not to be jumping in and out of swamps with crocodiles,” admits Giovanna.
Very early one Saturday morning, Giovanna, who is the 2013 Australian RIRDC Rural Women’s Award winner, chatted with Ruby by phone from Darwin before the heat of the day set in and family life got going.
“I was so surprised to be chosen as the Northern Territory representative and then to win the national award. It was very exciting, even though I had no idea it might be me until the night” Giovanna explains that when Senator Barnaby Joyce made the official announcement he prefixed it by saying that he’d never want to tangle with this winner’s pets.
How did Giovanna come to stand on that stage? A friend, she says, had tried to nominate her for the award for three years, but she was always too busy running the business.
“This time, I stopped and sat down and thought I should focus on something larger than the business. The award was the perfect opportunity to look at what we are doing for rural industries and women and the crocodile industry in particular, and to think about a project that would benefit women and especially indigenous women,” Giovanna says.
Crocodile farming has any number of employment and training facets and has been carefully managed to create a sustainable and significantly profitable industry for the Northern Territory. It is, in fact, one of the few farming industries based around a native Australian species that depends on maintaining the environment and ecology of the land, and it benefits the indigenous communities living on it, believes Giovanna.
The industry purchases eggs and hatchlings from indigenous landowners, and has created a range of employment, career and financial opportunities. Jobs as diverse as egg collection and incubation, baby crocodile care, raising crocodiles, husbandry, techniques for skinning and meat production, tourism and hospitality work are all available. Crocodile by-products - teeth, bone, pieces of skin – are already being incorporated within traditional art –producing innovative and marketable pieces. The potential to manufacture locally made retail products, for the tourist industry, is another potential avenue.
The industry generates around $30million for the Northern Territory in skin value alone and Crocodylus Park employs about 50 people.
Fifty per cent of the employees are men and 50 per cent women, and, as Giovanna is quick to point out, the top operational positions are mostly held by women.
“We have long term relationships with the Maningrida community in Arnhem Land, where much of the original crocodile research was done, and where we buy hatchlings from the community each year. Until now we’ve been training mainly the men in crocodile related work. But it’s really the women and girls who are better at looking after the baby crocodiles,” says Giovanna.
“The RIRDC project is to empower indigenous women in the crocodile industry through involving them in our business here in Darwin, Crocodylus Park. This could be training on the tourism and hospitality side, or the crocodile farming side of the business, or by providing skin, teeth, bone, heads, for traditional art,” Giovanna explains.
Going forward the aim is to increase the life of the project and make the training, employment and financial opportunities as “resilient as crocodiles are”. To do this, Giovanna is now working with governments and speaking with the private sector to refine the project and find the funding needed to sustain her work.
“It is an expensive undertaking, but the potential for indigenous women and their communities as well as the industry is certainly there. We are actually funding the project ourselves because I am passionate about what it can bring to the Northern Territory and to indigenous women and rural industries here. I have the pieces of the puzzle and now I am putting them together,” says Giovanna, who is a Territorian Finalist for Australian of the Year in 2014 announced January 25, Australia Day Eve.
Crocodile farming – a few facts and figures
The industry is heavily regulated and the incentives make legal farming and hunting sustainable and profitable, says Giovanna (pictured above right grading crocodile skins for sale and export).
There are more wild crocodiles per capita in Darwin than anywhere else in the world. There are 130,000 people and about 80,000 crocodiles in the wild. The wild crocodile population is healthy, stable and very strong.
Like most crocodile farming concerns, Crocodylus Park is licensed to collect eggs from certain areas only. Egg collection takes place between Christmas and March each year.
Each farmer pays $20-40 per egg, depending on how far the nesting grounds are (the collection is done by helicopter)
Each nest has on average 50 eggs
All the farms together collect approximately 50,000 eggs a year.
The revenue from the eggs goes directly to land owners and the communities.
Crocodylus exports skins to high end fashion houses and luxury goods manufacturers, such as the French company Hermes and it is in the skins that it makes its money.
Of the 23 species of crocodiles, etc, in the world, the Australian salt water crocodile’s skin is considered the best of the best.
Given the number of crocodiles, and of people, Australia has one of the lowest rates of attack and fatalities involving crocodiles, because the public is well educated.
Crocodylus Park has about 10,000 animals. Growing healthy strong stock requires moving the animals around each few months, because they grow at different rates and need to be housed in like-sized groups. Moving crocodiles around 2 m long is heavy, risky work. Moving the large adults, up to 5 m long and 600 kg, some “very aggressive”, is always a challenge. The farm has strict guidelines and procedures in place and has had very few incidents.
Most Australian farmers take their crocodiles to three years. Crocodylus farms its animal until they’re 4 years old for larger skin sizes.
The sex of crocodiles is determined by the temperature at which the eggs are incubated. Eggs kept at 32 degrees Celsius will be male, anything above or below that temperature will be mainly female.
Farmers want male crocodiles – they grow faster.
Crocodiles have 70 teeth.
The biggest crocodile living is in Australia and originally caught by Crocodylus Park staff, is just under 6 m in length.
Crocodiles spend much of their time conserving their energy, rarely moving more than necessary. They can stay under water for an hour. A young male crocodile at the farm is fed about 1-2 chickens once a week.
Grahame Webb is the Chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature – Species Survival Commission, Crocodile Specialist Group (CSG), with 500 members from 62 countries. Crocodylus Park, the business in which he and Giovanna work, is the CSG’s international headquarters.