French fashion label Hermès has its sights set on building Australia’s biggest crocodile farm, teaming up with a veteran of the industry and buying a former horticultural site near Darwin, in the country’s Northern Territory.
The facility is expected to house some 50,000 saltwater crocodiles—all of which will be farmed for skin and meat products—and will cost about $40 million to develop. At peak production capacity the planned project will increase the number of farmed crocodiles in the NT by 50 percent, according to the ABC.
Hermès acquired the former melon and banana farm at Lambells Lagoon through PRI Farming, a foreign-controlled company that boasts a number of key executives from the French fashion house. The director of PRI is one Mick Burns, who is among the biggest players in the NT’s lucrative crocodile industry.
Documents detailing plans for the state-of-the-art croc farm conjure images of a Jurassic Park-style breeding facility—replete with an egg incubator laboratory, a hatchery, grower pens, finishing pens, an open farm area and refrigerated feed preparation and storage areas. Approximately 30 people would be employed there during full production.
Australia is the world leader in the saltwater crocodile trade, and the NT is the nation’s largest producer. Over 24,600 crocodile skins were exported from the state in 2018/2019, and a report by insights company Ernst & Young (EY) in 2017 estimated that the statewide croc industry, including farming and tourism, was worth $107 million.
The EY report further noted that the NT’s impressive standards of quality had "encouraged high-end fashion producers such as Hermès and Louis Vuitton to purchase local NT farms to secure their supply chain".
Those two French fashion labels currently own or control the overwhelming majority of crocodile farms in the state. Geoff McClure, a crocodile farming consultant who’s worked in the industry since the 80s, told the ABC that Hermès bought its first farm about 10 years ago, thus setting in motion a domino effect that prompted Louis Vuitton to start buying its own croc farms out of "concern about Hermès owning the whole Australian market".
"If they buy up the farms, they have continuity of supply and they have a value-adding factor," McClure said. "They are harvesting eggs in the NT, raising those crocodiles on their own farms, to their own standard—and that standard has to be incredibly high, with no damage to the skin at all—and then tanning that skin to a very high-quality standard to produce a product for high-quality fashion.
"We are talking here about handbags that are worth $US20,000 to $US30,000."
Hermès has drawn controversy in the past following allegations that they relied on unethical methods for the harvesting of crocodile and alligator skins. A 2016 investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) aired claims that farms in the United States and Zimbabwe were cutting crocodiles and alligators open while still alive in order to harvest their skins. The fashion brand did not deny the allegations, but called the incident an “isolated irregularity”.
Just months earlier, Hermès set the all-time price record for a handbag at auction when a white Himalaya Niloticus crocodile Birkin bag went for more than $US300,000.
For what it’s worth, NT producers are typically known as ethical providers of crocodile skins.
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