Success for Cambridge conservation charity battling to save one of world’s rarest reptiles

PUBLISHED: 00:31 06 September 2018 | UPDATED: 00:36 06 September 2018

A young Siamese crocodile. Picture: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora International

A young Siamese crocodile. Picture: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora International

ILIFFE

Fauna & Flora International is working to help Siamese crocodiles

65 Siamese crocodiles hatched in captivity this year. Picture: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora International65 Siamese crocodiles hatched in captivity this year. Picture: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora International

It is one of the rarest reptiles in the world – and has disappeared from 99 per cent of its original range.

But now, with help from Cambridge-based conservation charity Fauna & Flora International (FFI), there is renewed hope for the Siamese crocodile.

Three clutches of eggs, cared for at a captive-breeding facility in Cambodia, have yielded 65 hatchlings.

With estimates putting the wild population at a mere 250 mature individuals, this represents a momentous moment for the species, which is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.

The species was widely believed to be extinct in the wild until its rediscovery during surveys in the remote Cardamom Mountains, led by FFI.

A Siamese crocodile. They grow to one metre in three years. Picture: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora InternationalA Siamese crocodile. They grow to one metre in three years. Picture: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora International

This area of Cambodia is home to the majority of the global population and yet even here, in its main stronghold, there has been very little breeding activity in the wild, partly because the population is so small and fragmented.

Surveys have recorded one or two nests at year, at most – and the one discovered by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) staff last year was, worryingly, the first since 2013.

But there is hope. In addition to the success at the captive-breeding facility in Phnom Penh, managed by FFI in partnership with the Cambodian Forestry Administration, this year has been the best for years for wild nests.

Five have been discovered – four of which were downstream from one of the sites where FFI released 38 pure-bred crocodiles as part of a national reintroduction programme launched in 2012. Prior to the single one found here by WCS in 2017, the last time any wild nests were found in this river system was 2004.

Dr Jackson Frechette, flagship species programme manager at FFI, which is based in the David Attenborough Building in Cambridge, said: “This is the culmination of 18 years of hard work by FFI and our partners to protect and restore Siamese crocodiles in this part of Cambodia.

A Siamese crocling. Picture: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora InternationalA Siamese crocling. Picture: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora International

“We’ve really built on that solid foundation and it feels as though we’ve turned a corner in our efforts to bring this species back from the brink. It’s a perfect illustration of the fact that species recovery – more often than not – depends on long-term investment and vision on the part of conservationists, communities and donors alike.”

The first individual to hatch from the captive-breeding programme that FFI launched came from a clutch in 2012. It was released into the wild in 2015. Another clutch in 2016 produced seven hatchlings.

With financial and technical support from donors and collaborators – particularly Lonnie McCaskill of WCS – the facilities and husbandry have been significantly improved, leading to this year’s spectacular success.

Every crocodile hatched from two of the three clutches of eggs looked after this year, and 90 per cent of the third clutch also hatched.

All 65 of the baby crocodiles will be reared in captivity for up to three years, until they are a metre long. They will be large enough to fend for themselves and will be released into strictly protected community crocodile sanctuaries.

Siamese crocodiles have disappeared from 99 per cent of their range. Picture: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora InternationalSiamese crocodiles have disappeared from 99 per cent of their range. Picture: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora International

The Cambodian Forestry Administration opened the Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Centre in 1995. Supported by the Wildlife Alliance, Free the Bears and FFI, it is a rehabilitation centre for around 90 species rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. The Siamese crocodile is among many species for which there are breeding and release programmes at the site, which doubles as a zoo, with animals that cannot be released given a home in a natural forest setting.

Learn more about FFI’s work at its upcoming talk, ‘Gorillas in Our Midst: Great Ape Conservation with FFI’, on September 11 at the David Attenborough Building in Cambridge. Find out more and buy tickets at fauna-flora.org/events.

Skin trade drives species to the brink

The Siamese crocodile’s decline began with competition from rice farmers for its wetland habitat.

However, it was the explosion in commercial hunting and large-scale farming in the 1950s to supply the international skin trade that drove the species to the brink of extinction.

Siamese crocodiles are targets for the trade because they produce fine, soft leather and are easy to breed in captivity.

There are thought to be about one million in captivity, but these are actually hybrids and mongrels.

Almost all individuals caught in the wild have subsequently been hybridised with other crocodile species. FFI warns that this compromises the genetic purity of the vast majority of captive stock, as well as severely depleting the wild population.

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