As the mid-morning sun hits our heads and we want to escape to a shade, the giant reptiles crawl out of their ponds to bask.
Just like tourists who flock to the beaches to soak up the sun at the Kenyan coast, so do the thousands of crocodiles at the popular Mamba Crocodile Farm in Mombasa.
Busloads of local tourists had pulled up at the Mamba Village to tour the crocodile farm. At the farm, the tour guides educate the visitors on how the crocodiles hatch from the eggs to adulthood where they can weigh up to 800 kilogrammes and five metres long.
Of most interesting is the story of ‘Big Daddy’—one of the oldest crocodiles at the farm aged more than 110 years. It was brought to Mamba Crocodile Farm in 1986 after killing five people in River Tana.
Although the farm has 21 ponds with the largest ones having the capacity to house more than 1,000 crocodiles, ‘Big Daddy’ lives in luxury. It has its own pond which it shares with two huge female crocodiles.
The crocodile farm owned by the former Nyali MP, Hezron Awiti was opened 45 years ago.
He says initially the farm used to be a quarry and a dumpsite before it was converted into a conservation area for crocodiles.
In 1995, Mr Awiti bought the farm from a foreigner who used it mainly as tourist site. “Rather than depending on tourism which is a seasonal business, I decided to venture into commercial crocodile farming,” he says.
He switched to commercial farming after he learnt that crocodile skins were a lucrative business in overseas markets. Now, he is one of the African farmers who feed the luxury brands with skin to make fashion accessories for the rich.
Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Gucci, Paladino and Chanel are all reported to use crocodile skin sourced from different crocodile farmers globally. They use it to make handbags, wallets and belts.
“While on trips abroad, I came across items such as handbags, shoes, belts and watch straps made from crocodile skin which only the well-off people can afford to buy,” he says.
A crocodile skin Birkin handbag could cost anything from Sh2 million to Sh22 million.
He now exports the crocodile skin to markets such as Japan, Israel and South Africa. For crocodile meat, he is eyeing the lucrative market of China and South Korea and other countries where the meat is a popular delicacy.
“The bulk of the crocodile meat is consumed locally. We have a restaurant at Mamba Village which serves it,” he says, adding that locals from Nairobi and other cities visit the farm to view the crocodiles and then end up feasting on mouth-watering crocodile steaks or mishkaki.
A quarter a kilo of crocodile meat costs Sh1,000 at the Mamba Restaurant while two pieces of mishkaki with accompaniments costs Sh500.
For those who want to buy crocodile meat to prepare at home, they can buy at between Sh4,000 and Sh5,000 per kilo at the restaurant.
Currently, the farm has more than 10,000 crocodiles including the younger ones aged one year to the oldest crocodile ‘Big Daddy’ which is more than 110 years.
The crocodile farm investment, Mr Awiti says, is worth more than Sh250 million.
To meet demand, the farm has 21 ponds each measuring between 50 feet and 100 feet with a capacity to hold up to 30,000 crocodiles.
The farm breeds crocodiles using an incubator where they put eggs collected to hatch. The use of the incubators makes them determine the sex of the crocodiles by controlling the temperature.
When the incubator is set at 30 degrees and below, it produces a female crocodile while the setting of temperatures of between 32 degrees and 33 degrees results into male crocodiles.
The crocodiles lay over 14,000 eggs a year. Although they are edible, the farm does not sell them. Mr Awiti says the eggs hatch and the hatchlings are sold.
A crocodile aged between four to five years is sold at more than Sh20,000 while those aged above 10 years fetch between Sh40,000 and Sh50,000 depending on the length and health of the skin.
“We have supplied hatchlings to many farms in the region and beyond. So we do not sell eggs despite them being as tasty as chicken eggs,” he says.
The female crocodiles at the farm lay between seven and 77 eggs in a season.
Hatching takes place within 30 or 40 minutes. The farm slaughters crocodiles aged four or five years because at that age, their meat is tender and the skin is ideal for making accessories.
Crocodile meat tastes like fish or pork and it is even crispier. It is popular to high-end customers since it is white meat. The farm slaughters between 1,000 and 1,800 crocodiles a year and preserve the skins at four degrees centigrade. The skin is sold according to the belly width.
Mr Awiti says the skins are sold with a centimetre measurement fetching $1.5 (Sh155) down from a high of $6 (Sh618) seven years ago due to falling prices on the international market.
The Mombasa crocodile farm is the largest in East Africa and the second largest in Africa after Pandega Holdings in Zimbabwe which accounts for 85 per cent of the global supply of skins to luxury fashion brands, with 43,000 animals killed in 2014 alone.