Sustainable Harvest Of Caiman Falls Short Of Potential

March 30, 1999

Sustainable harvest is touted as a way for wildlife to pay for its own conservation. But how successful is it really? In the case of the caiman harvest in Venezuela, there's lots of room for improvement, say John Thorbjarnarson of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bronx, New York and Alvaro Velasco of PROFAUNA in Caraca, Venezuela.

Crocodilians are good candidates for sustainable harvest because they reproduce rapidly and have valuable skins. Since late 1960s most crocodilian skins worldwide have come from South American caiman, and Venezuela began the first sustainable harvest program for the spectacled caiman in 1983.

The caiman are hunted on ranches on the Venezuelan plains, where they benefit from dry-season water holes installed for cattle. Hunting is restricted to a few months before the breeding season and is limited to those longer than six feet, which spares females. Over the program's first 12 years, more than a million spectacled caiman were harvested, with an export value of more than $115 million.

Until last year, a percentage of the caiman profits went directly to PROFAUNA, the Venezuelan wildlife department. In 1989, PROFAUNA received more than a million dollars from caiman profits. Now, however, caimain funds will go instead to the central government treasury, breaking the direct link between sustainable harvest of wildlife and conservation.

The link between sustainable harvest and conservation is further threatened by the increase in crocodilian farming, which entails collecting eggs from captive adults, says Thorbjarnarson in a companion commentary on the history of international trade in crocodilian skins.

Another threat to crocodilian sustainable harvest programs is the instability of the market for crocodilian skins, which are a luxury item. "A single economically based approach to conservation will remain susceptible to the vagaries of market forces in the world," says Thorbjarnarson, "and short-term vagaries can grossly undermine the long-term conservation goals of these programs." To diversify the caiman program, Thorbjarnarson and Velasco recommend both establishing ecotourism programs and harvesting other valuable wildlife living on the Venezuelan plains, such as anacondas and tegu lizards.
PHOTOS of caiman are available.

Society for Conservation Biology

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