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."

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