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Closer look: A fresh future for Siamese crocs – rescue, rear & release

A young crocodile. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI
Written by: Louisa McKerrow
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The release into the wild of 20 juvenile Critically Endangered Siamese crocodiles in August 2014 was a significant step forward for the survival of the species in Cambodia.

The Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Project (CCCP) team works with local community members in the Areng Valley to rescue, rear and release Siamese crocodiles. Since 2011, the CCCP has released 55 crocodiles back into the wild. Around half of these were donated by farmers or confiscated from illegal wildlife traders and reared by the captive breeding facility at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, while the other half came from the CCCP Areng Valley ‘head-start’ programme.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and the Cambodian Forestry Administration launched the CCCP in 2000 after Siamese crocodiles (which were thought to be extinct in the wild at the time) were rediscovered during a joint expedition in the Cardamom Mountains, south-west Cambodia.

Since then, we have been working with local communities to protect and monitor three critical breeding populations in the Cardamom Mountains which account for up to 80% of the global population of wild Siamese crocodiles.

The crocodile’s numbers are now so low that the species cannot recover without help, and the CCCP’s combined approach of on-the-ground conservation and population reinforcement (through the release of captive bred and head-started animals) is fundamental to the continued survival and recovery of this species.

If we are successful, not only will we have prevented the extinction of an iconic and culturally important species, but we will also have maintained the health of the overall aquatic ecosystem, providing water and food security for the Cambodian people.

Siamese crocodile with radio tracker, Stoeung Kampong Ta Chhay River. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Siamese crocodile with radio tracker, Stoeung Kampong Ta Chhay River. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Cultural, economic and ecological value

The Siamese crocodile is one of the world’s most endangered crocodilians. Although indigenous to rivers, lakes and swamps throughout Cambodia, this species was recently considered extinct in the wild.

This crocodile is an exceptionally important species for Cambodia, with major cultural, economic and ecological value. Many local people – including the Khmer Daeum/Chorng (original Khmer) communities in the Cardamom Mountains – believe Siamese crocodile bring good fortune and must never be harmed. Siamese crocodiles were once kept in moats around the temples at Angkor Wat.

These predators also play an important role in maintaining the productivity and diversity of ecosystems. Not only do they dig and maintain ponds to provide water throughout the dry season, they also help to control the predatory fish that feed on smaller, commercially-important fish species.

Extinct in some parts of South East Asia, only around 250 adult Siamese crocodiles remain in the wild. The population’s 80% decline is a result of habitat loss, habitat degradation and the poaching collection of crocodiles and their eggs for crocodile farms and the skin trade.

A new imminent danger is posed by hydro-power dam development which can flood breeding and nursery habitats, and also draws a large number of people to the area during the construction phase, increasing the risk of poaching.

Crocodylus siamensis. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Crocodylus siamensis. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Giving juveniles a head start

The CCCP’s conservation captive breeding programme began in early 2010 in collaboration with the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center and is the first of its kind in Cambodia, providing a vital source of genetic diversity for the re-introduction of the species into new areas.

The programme works by moving a proportion of eggs laid by wild crocodiles to a hatchery where juveniles are cared for in a captive setting for up to two years. Some eggs are always left in the nest so that at least a proportion of the young are raised naturally by the mother.

Captive breeding helps the crocodiles get a head-start, as around 95% of eggs and new hatchlings are killed by flooding, disease, and predation in the wild.

Captive breeding for wild release is an essential part of the CCCP’s long-term goal of conserving Siamese crocodiles in the wild. In the near future the programme team hopes to have enough breeding pairs to release 50-100 juveniles each year.

The power of partnerships

In order to build a highly productive breeding programme it is essential that our keepers are of an international standard. This means training staff in advanced capture and handling skills with the support of IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group members.

Building on an international partnership, in 2014 the CCCP invited Nikhil Whitaker, curator at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust in India, to help train keepers at FFI’s Siamese crocodile captive breeding facility. The CCCP also has a long partnership with Disney’s Animal Kingdom, with special thanks to former zoological manager Lonnie McCaskill.

CCCP Manager Sam Han (left) with Lonnie McCaskill holding a Siamese crocodile in Stoeung Kampong Ta Chhay River. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

CCCP Manager Sam Han (left) with Lonnie McCaskill holding a Siamese crocodile in Stoeung Kampong Ta Chhay River. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

What next?

FFI continues to work with the Royal Government of Cambodia and local communities to protect the remaining wild crocodiles and their habitats, with the three existing crocodile sanctuaries protected by local community wardens.

The project will continue to monitor and evaluate released crocodiles through tracking studies of released individuals, analysing crocodile population trends, and understanding the impacts of the project on local communities.

Additionally, six new sites will be established as national community crocodile sanctuaries to provide protection from hydro-power development and other threats.

We also advocate for stricter controls over crocodile farming and trade and carry out research and monitoring.

The CCCP programme is supported by our donors: Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund; US Fish and Wildlife Service; SOS – Save Our Species (a joint initiative of IUCN, the Global Environment Facility and the World Bank); Association of Zoos and Aquariums; Ocean Park Conservation Foundation; and People’s Trust for Endangered Species.

Written by
Louisa McKerrow

Louisa McKerrow is a Communications & Partnerships Officer for FFI in Cambodia. In 2013/4, she created strategic communications outputs for FFI's Asia-Pacific Community Carbon Pools and REDD+ Programme, working with teams from Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. Hailing from Australia, Louisa has extensive experience in the areas of media, communications and public relations. Her pen, camera and sense of humour have led her to wonderful work locations throughout Australia, Canada, USA, Solomon Islands, Asia and Peru. She was raised on a sheep and cattle farm in Outback Australia, and throughout her career has promoted sustainable land use and protection of natural resources. Her speciality sectors are the environment (forest management & climate change) and agriculture (biosecurity, livestock & broad-acre farming).

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