For years crocodile farms have relied on the Top End’s feral buffalo and cattle populations to supply meat for their reptiles.
But an increasing demand for buffalo and a rise in cattle prices has seen crocodile farms be outpriced by live exporters.
This price pressure has forced pet meat suppliers like Owen ‘Bluey’ Pugh and his wife Janelle to travel thousands of kilometres to central Australia.
The pair has been negotiating access with cattle stations to shoot the feral camels and horses on their properties for processing into crocodile food.
“We are having to go further and further afield because the buffalo industry has picked up a fair bit and now buffalo is worth a lot of money,” Mr Pugh said.
The long distances from their base in Katherine to central Australia mean the Pughs have to spend weeks at a time out in the bush.
“There is a lot of logistical problems storing meat that long, not to mention the fuel that is used, but we feel that it is worth it,” Mr Pugh said.
“It has cut down on our margins a bit, but as time progresses if we keep it alive and the season dries up perhaps we will move further northward.”
The Pughs can accrue six tonnes of meat on a single shooting trip.
Upon their return they cut the meat into manageable pieces and assess its quality and freshness.
“If it is a little bit smelly and off then we have to discard it,” Ms Pugh said.
The meat can then be packaged and sent it to crocodile farms near Darwin.
Crocs require quality red meat
For decades the Pughs ran a crocodile farm at Coolibah Station, south-west of Katherine, before they were bought out by French fashion company Louis Vuitton.
Mr Pugh said during his 30 years in the crocodile industry, sourcing fresh, quality red meat for crocodile farms had never been so difficult.
“Crocodile farms use a lot of chicken heads but they come at a cost and they are seasonal. The problem with chicken heads is that they are oily and don’t have a lot of protein,” he said.
“The amount of calcium absorbed because of the phosphorous in the red meat is increased, so that gives the crocodile a bigger frame and therefore a better size and style of animal.
“By putting additives in with the red meat there is an increased amount of keratin, which gives a thicker cuticle on the skin, so the overall quality of the skin is improved by using red meat.”
Removing feral animals benefits everyone
Mr Pugh sees his venture as beneficial for both the crocodile and pastoral industries, but is in need of more properties to shoot feral animals at.
“There is a greater competition for feed in drier areas. If [cattle stations] are dealing with a couple of hundred less animals then there is a lot more food left for their own stock,” he said.
“By reducing their numbers [pastoralists] can fix their fences and they can utilise their waters better.”
One of the places Mr Pugh has been shooting feral animals is at Mt Denison Station, roughly 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs.
Owner Dianne Martin said when Mr Pugh got in touch with her about the proposal, she was quick to get on board, as her property has upwards of 600 — 700 feral camels and horses competing with her cattle for feed.
“We have a big horse problem and now a lot of camels are coming in as it’s getting drier,” Ms Martin said.
“They do so much damage to the trap paddocks and the fencing and things.
“We shoot them, but the meat is wasted, so it’s much better for them to be shot, boned out, and the meat used instead of having carcasses around.”