MANILA, Philippines - Philip “Sonny” Dizon is no suit-and-tie businessman.
Tall, mustached, with a penchant for gold jewelry and semi-rimless sunglasses, the 57-year-old has the air of a playboy. He calls adventure sport the closest adrenaline rush to sex. He tries to avoid Manila most of the year, jetting either to his Las Vegas condo or home in Davao. Next month, he and a few buddies will head to the east coast of Mindanao to “f*** around” on jet skis.
Dizon is also the proud owner of 900 saltwater crocodiles.
Last year, 500,000 people – many of them hysterical school children – paid to look at Dizon’s saltwater crocodiles.
Dizon never intended to use his reptiles for this purpose. 26 years ago, he started breeding Crocodylus porosus with the aim of selling their skin and meat on the international market.
Instead, Dizon has become the nation’s czar of crocodile tourism.
Dizon is the owner of the only two crocodile parks in the Philippines. And, in the past seven years, he has turned them into the cornerstone of a small tourism empire.
That empire is set to expand further next year when Dizon opens his third and largest crocodile park – with a safari twist.
He also hopes, with government approval, to finally export crocodile meat and skin to global buyers. A luxury market that, for skin alone, can fetch as much as $500 per crocodile.
For all their profitability, crocodiles seem a particularly unusual venture for a man whose wealth was built on growing pomelos – not porosus.
62 years ago, Dizon’s father founded Dizon Farms, which stands today as one of the nation’s most well-known food brands.
While the Dizon children still own and manage the company, Sonny Dizon is trying to use his share of the family wealth to walk his own path.
It’s a personal mission that, Dizon says, was instilled by his father.
Growing up, Francisco Dizon would tell his eight children: “Don’t rely on the family business because it may not grow as fast as your family grows.”
After his father’s death six years ago, those words have found a new resonance with Sonny.
But, as he seeks to emulate the business success of his father, Sonny – who swipes distractedly at an iPad during our initial sit-down interview – is doing it with a flair that is purely his own.
From pigs to crocodiles
Dizon’s fixation on crocodiles began with a pair of shoes in 1986.
Dizon was on vacation in San Francisco at the time. Like his brothers and sisters, he is no stranger to the United States. The Dizon brood, with their father’s wealth and insistence, was largely educated in the US West Coast.
Dizon was in a shoe store when an $800 price tag caught his eye. He asked the salesman, a Filipino, why the shoes were so expensive.
“Because it’s a crocodile skin shoe,” Dizon recalled the salesman saying. “It’s the most expensive skin available.”
Shortly after returning to the Philippines, a friend would lend him a book about crocodiles. He memorized pages of facts about the reptile’s breeding cycle, metabolism, and evolutionary history.
Opportunity was knocking. At the time, there were crocodile farms in Australia and a growing number in Southeast Asia, but none in the Philippines.
Three years earlier, Sonny had closed a 16,000-strong pig farm in Davao due to supply and credit problems. Sonny would learn, after a visit to Thailand to examine crocodile farms, that he could grow the reptiles in the same cement enclosures that once housed his pigs.
Crocodiles, despite their aggressive reputation, are easy to control when they’re contained. Their hardiness, in some ways, makes them easy to breed compared to many other exotic animals.
“They are not like tigers that you have to feed every two hours,” Dizon says. “These are reptiles that can go without food for two weeks. They are born to survive.”
Dizon sent a group of people to Mindanao to capture Indo-Pacific crocodiles in the wild. The species, often called saltwater crocodiles, are the largest and most common in the world, found in Northern Australia, Southeast Asia, and Eastern India.
Beginning with 100 wild specimens and a few captive crocodiles supplied later by other sources, Dizon has now bred an army of 900.
Yet, it was only three years ago that Dizon began selling crocodile skin and meat – nearly 23 years after he opened his farm.
At present, Dizon lacks accreditation to sell raw skin internationally. He is instead selling small numbers of belts and bags – already processed into leather – at local vendors in Davao.
It’s a less profitable trade than the global market, which Dizon is confident he will soon be able to join once he gains accreditation from the government.
“The real money is exporting skin,” Dizon said. “In fact, there’s a commercial shortage of saltwater crocodile skin.”
The reason it has taken Dizon so long to begin selling skin, even domestically, is not entirely clear.
In one interview, Dizon said he was waiting to build up his crocodile numbers before going into full-scale harvesting. In an earlier interview, Dizon said he had encountered some regulatory issues because his crocodiles were bred from a wild catch, rather than captive species.
When pressed, Dizon was reluctant to explain the problems.
Whatever the exact reason for the delay, Dizon has lost his lead in the crocodile commodity industry. Today, in addition to Sonny’s two farms in Davao, there are about six major crocodile farms in the Philippines.
Construction magnate William Belo holds the title of the biggest farm, with over 5,000 crocodiles on his 10-hectare site in Maybancal, Rizal.
But the wait to break into the international market spurred Sonny to veer into a lucrative direction his competitors haven’t – charging for the privilege of viewing his crocodiles.
The Crocodile Parks
In 2005, Dizon opened Davao Crocodile Park, a two-hectare wildlife park seven kilometers from Dizon’s biggest farm.
A saltwater crocodile does not lay eggs and reaches a harvestable size at four years of age. Dizon saw an opportunity to profit in the short term.
“Crocodiles have a long gestation period, while you’re waiting you might as well make money in the tourism industry,” Dizon said.
Dizon built fenced enclosures and filled them with teams of crocodiles. To flesh out the experience, Dizon added circus-like shows. In one show, an attendant walks above a mass of crocodiles on a tightrope. In another, a crocodile is nudged with a stick to make it thrash (a show which has gained a lashing from YouTube commenters).
And, while crocodiles are the stars of the show, Dizon brought in a menagerie of supporting actors: orangutans, tigers, snakes, cockatoos and civet cats.
Last year, 300,000 came to view Dizon’s park. The biggest demographic are school groups, who flock daily through Dizon’s gates in uniformed mobs.
In 2008, riding on a crest of crocodile fervor, Dizon shipped crocodiles to Manila to open a second smaller park. Last year, it drew 200,000 visitors, and the numbers are rising.
PSD Adventure World
Dizon has used the parks, specifically his Davao facility, to open a dozen other tourism attractions, from zorbs and ziplines to resorts and restaurants, under his brand PSD Adventure World.
Dizon, who describes being bored by the thought of lazing around a swimming pool, has tried to model the attractions after his own passions.
One of his two resorts, for instance, is a hybrid waterpark on Samal island that offers a smorgasbord of jetskiing, kayaking and diving. The resort is perched in layers on a steep slope to the sea, with two giant waterslides curling over the seawall.
PSD Adventure World, perhaps as a tribute to Dizon’s taste for the unusual, has also twisted its tentacles into stranger territory. In 2010, Dizon took 20 civet cats from his crocodile parks and began using their droppings to produce coffee.
Civet coffee sells for $100 to $600 per pound and is one of the world’s most expensive coffees. It is produced by feeding ripe coffee cherries to Asian palm civets, which then excrete the beans. The cat’s digestive system removes the bitterness of the bean, creating a highly desired flavor.
“We already knew how to take care of them, how to feed them, their housing requirements, so all we needed to do was feed them the coffee,” Dizon says.
At the heart of all of these ventures, however – from civet coffee to water resorts – are still the crocodile parks.
A visit to Davao Crocodile Park is a blitzkrieg of cross-promotion for PSD Adventure World: Zorb balls emblazon billboards. Whitewater rafters flip over on looped TV recordings. A keeper introduces the next crocodile show with the preface: “Brought to you by Zip City, the most accessible, most scenic, and most friendly zipline for all ages.”
To further unify the brand and expand his advertising reach, Dizon now runs a travel channel that broadcasts in Mindanao.
The Land of Promise
Dizon plans to expand most of his tourism ventures in one way or another, but crocodiles remain his key to growth.
Beyond selling skin and meat, Dizon sees further commercial opportunities. A resort in Boracay, for instance, is interested in buying his crocodiles for its own zoo.
His biggest venture, however, is Safari Land, a 10-hectare wildlife park that Dizon hopes will be his crowning achievement when it opens in Davao in 2013.
Dizon’s vision is a wildlife park that families can watch from the comfort of their car. Some crocodiles have already been transferred to the site, but he also intends to add tigers, elephants, ostriches, and other big game.
Dizon has other plans nationwide that he is keeping close to his chest for now, but he views Mindanao as a region fertile for tourism development.
In many ways, Dizon’s passion for tourism in the region mirrors the same opportunity his father saw when he first arrived to grow pomelo.
At the time Francisco Dizon migrated to Mindanao, the area was underutilized by fruit growers. It was known as the “land of promise.”
Dizon hopes, with the help of a thousand reptiles and his own zeal for risk-taking, he can realize a similar promise.