Siamese Croc Back From the Brink—But For How Long?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic Ultimate Explorer
Updated December 31, 2003
A beautiful reptile once thought functionally extinct in the wild is
back from the brink—barely. Can remote Cambodian mountains continue
to shelter the Siamese crocodile?

The Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) is popular for its meat and soft skin—far too popular for its own good. While thousands of the animals are bred on crocodile farms in Thailand and Cambodia the croc has all but vanished from its former natural range across Southeast Asia. The major culprits are habitat loss and hunting for the farming industry.

Until a few years ago the animals were thought to be effectively extinct in the wild. But in 2000 a team of international and Cambodian scientists, led by Fauna and Flora International (FFI), surveyed Cambodia's remote Cardamom Mountains. FFI's Jenny Daltry discovered a significant population living in that former Khmer Rouge stronghold, which includes a nearly untouched forest covering over 3,800 square miles (10,000 square kilometers).

The find showed just how isolated certain Southeast Asian locales have remained.

"Little was known about what was going in much of Southeast Asia because of wars in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam," said John Thorbjarnarson, who coordinates reptile conservation programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). "Since then people (WCS researchers and others) have been finding small groups of Siamese crocodiles scattered about, by and large away from human presence."

The Cardamom mountain population is the only confirmed group of significant size. Scientists know of only perhaps two animals in Thailand, and less than ten in Laos. Reports from Borneo are unknown and the Vietnam population may be totally extinct.

Daltry is certain of only perhaps 150 animals in the Cardamoms. "I think that there are more to be discovered," she said, "but certainly this is an extremely rare animal."

The violence of the Khmer Rouge once made the area a haven for wildlife. It now represents probably the last hope for a viable wild population of the animals.

Croc Farms a Booming Business

While the crocs fight for their existence in the wild tens of thousands of them live on farms in Thailand, Cambodia, and elsewhere. China is also beginning to farm the animals, who adapt incredibly well to the cramped conditions of farm living.

The bottom line, of course, is profit. The farms provide a powerful economic incentive to impoverished Southeast Asians. It's proven disastrous for wild crocs. "It boils down to economics," Thorbjarnarson said. "They are very valuable and unless you have some control systems in place it will be very, very difficult to protect the last wild animals."

Just how valuable are the reptiles? "One adult female can fetch U.S. $1,800," Daltry reported. "That's more than most Cambodians earn in three to four years. So there's always an incentive for them to journey even to remote areas and try to catch one."

As wilderness populations have been sacrificed to grow farms, some are asking if those same farms might be used to rebuild failing wild populations. Indeed they may, but the proposition is not as simple as it sounds.

One big concern is species hybridization. Thorbjarnarson has done workshops with farmers near Siem Reap and elsewhere in Cambodia and his findings support the general belief that many farmed animals are genetic mongrels. "Farmers believe, probably with reason, that hybrid animals do better in captivity," he said. "They mature earlier and so make better economic sense for farmers."

The release of hybrid animals could spell doom for the pure species of wild Siamese crocodile, so any reintroduction efforts must take genetics into account.

With this in mind, National Geographic herpetologist Brady Barr trekked deep into the Cardamom Mountains with Daltry and Danny Cheang of Cambodia's Department of Forestry and Wildlife. In this remote refuge Barr had a chance to not only see, but capture a Siamese croc—becoming the first scientist to do so in some 70 to 100 years. The team took samples for DNA work that could be crucial to determining the genetic purity of crocs involved in Thailand's reintroduction efforts.

"Before Jenny Daltry's discovery in Cambodia I would have said that these crocs were probably doomed in the wild," Barr told National Geographic News. "Now there may be a very slim flicker of hope. But, in Thailand there are only three individuals left in the wild, so in that country they are absolutely doomed to extinction without man's intervention and reintroduction."

In Vietnam some 20 to 25 crocs have already been reintroduced into Cat Tien National Park, a joint project of WWF Vietnam and the Vietnamese government.

But such efforts are only viable when there is suitable habitat in which to release animals, and when the threats of hunting have been mitigated.

"It's not as easy as just releasing a bunch of crocs into the wild and hoping for the best," Barr explained. "The situation can't be remedied if you release crocs back into the wild that only later succumb to lack of resources or are killed by hunters."

A Second Chance to Save Crocs

Jenny Daltry agrees, and that is one reason she's focused on preserving the wild crocs that remain, work funded in part by the National Geographic Society.

"I'm far more interested in conserving them in the wild," she said. "Let's conserve the ones we know are there. If we can't save them there is no point in releasing others who will share the same fate as those lost. If we can save the Siamese crocodile we can save lots of other creatures that share the same areas."

"Once extinctions begin the results are far-reaching," Barr added. "Crocs are keystone species in the environment, meaning that they are of the utmost importance to the health of the ecosystem. It is analogous to a keystone in a building; you remove that stone and the building collapses. Well, you remove a keystone species and the entire ecosystem can collapse."

Saving the remaining crocs from such threats as logging and hunters isn't easy—but Daltry says that the animals have some powerful allies.

"Many of the indigenous people in the Cardamom Mountains revere the crocs and would never hurt them," she said. "They protect them from outsiders and we are able to work with those local communities."

The Cambodian government has stepped up to the plate as well, creating protected areas and dispatching rangers and other personnel to patrol them.

"Three or four years ago nobody in Cambodia was thinking of [the crocs] as anything special," she said. "Now they're seen as a priority, the government has shown a willingness to make sure that they don't disappear. Cambodians are proud of the fact that they still have these crocodiles when other nations have lost theirs."

In the end, it may be enough to keep one more name off the ignominious roll call of extinction.

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