Locals and tourists develop taste for crocodile meat in Thailand

For the last 20 years this man in red, sliding towards an open-mouthed crocodiles, has delighted tourists in Thailand.

The scaly skin of the reptile made into handbags has graced the arms of many high-society matrons while their husbands stepped out in style in crocodile leather shoes.

But in the last several years, Thais and tourists alike have discovered a taste - literally - for crocodile meat, as well as the alleged health benefits of eating crocodile and crocodile products.

Thai scientists claim that the blood helps to boost blood sugar levels, backing age-old belief that it is beneficial for anaemic people.

Supplements such as those marketed by companies like Wanithai Ltd, feed that demand.

The rising popularity for crocodile is good news for Thailand's farms, which are some of the world's biggest.

Some 1.2 million crocodiles are kept on more than 1,000 farms in Thailand, according to figures from the Thai department of fisheries.

Some are equipped with slaughterhouses and tanneries to produce luxury products.

Farm owners say the reptiles are profitable because the cost of raising them is minimal compared to what they bring in if they are kept for more than three years, as by then, every part on the crocodile body, except its head, can be sold.

Sri Ayuthaya Crocodile Farm is one of Thailand's biggest and has been operating for 35 years.

Crocodile meat is sold for as much as 300 baht (S$12) per kg. The bile and blood of the reptile, made into pills for their health benefits, are worth 40,000 baht and 500 baht per kg, respectively.

The company is registered with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), allowing it to legally export products made from the critically endangered Siamese freshwater crocodile, including to top buyer China.

Wichien Rueangnet, the farm's owner, says these days there is not enough meat to meet demand, especially since crocodile leather products fell more than 60 per cent in 2016 to 13 million baht from 34 million baht in 2015, commerce ministry figures show, and killing the reptiles just for meat is not an option.