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Discovery of baby Chinese alligators boosts hope for rare species

  • Fewer than 150 alligators remain in the wild in China.
  • To boost their dwindling numbers, researchers began reintroducing captive bred Chinese alligators to China’s wetlands in 2007.
  • The discovery of alligator hatchlings indicates that the reintroductions have been successful so far, but the population size in the wild is still very small, scientists say.

The world’s most endangered alligator — the Chinese alligator — is making a comeback.

Scientists have recently photographed baby Chinese alligators swimming in Dongtan Wetland Park in Shanghai.  Fewer than 150 alligators remain in the wild in China, and reintroduction efforts have been trying to revive their once abundant numbers. So the discovery of hatchlings signals a “huge success” for the ongoing efforts to re-establish their breeding populations in the wild, the Wildlife Conservation Society announced on October 26.

“This shows that even the most endangered wildlife can recover if given a chance,” Aili Kang, WCS Executive Director for Asia Programs, said in a statement. “Without the efforts of our partners and colleagues in China, we wouldn’t have had this great outcome that demonstrates that people and predators can co-exist in one of the most densely populated regions of the world.”

Captive-bred Chinese alligators are being reintroduced to China’s wetlands to re-establish their breeding populations in the wild. Photo by Greg Hume. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Chinese alligators were once widespread, ranging across China. But habitat destruction — mostly due to the conversion of wetlands to agricultural fields — has decimated their populations. Fewer than 150 Chinese alligators are thought to remain in the wild now, in small populations at widely dispersed locations, scientists say, with less than 20 individuals at each site. The species is currently listed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List.

To boost their dwindling numbers, researchers began reintroducing captive bred alligators to China’s wetlands.

In 2007, six adult Chinese alligators — three from a breeding center in Zhenjiang Province, China, and three from WCS’s Bronx Zoo, and the Saint Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in the U.S. — were released into Dongtan Wetland Park. Then in June 2015, six more adult Chinese alligators from Anhui Chinese Alligator National Nature Reserve were released into the wetland park.

The reintroductions seem to have been successful. Scientists observed 16 hatchlings in 2008, just a year after the first reintroductions. This year too, researchers discovered three Chinese alligator nests with more than 60 viable eggs at Dongtan Wetland Park. But a typhoon in mid-September, and the resulting flooding, swept away two of the nests, with the fate of the third nest remaining unknown.

On September 25, however, Mr. Wang Jiang Tao from Dongtan Wetland Park observed three baby alligators in the park, and Mr. Yu Feng from East China Normal University photographed the babies two days later, WCS said.

Chinese alligator nest with eggs. Photo credit: WCS.
Baby Chinese alligator swims in Dongtan Wetland Park in China. Two of three discovered nests in the park were destroyed by flooding but photos show that alligators from the third nest survived. Photo credit: East China Normal University.

Dongtan Wetland Park is currently free from threats of habitat loss or human interference, WCS Scientist Fenglian Li told Mongabay. “The weather is the main threat for the alligators there,” she said. “For example, we found three nests, but only one nest hatched because of the big typhoon.”

Li added that while the Chinese alligator reintroduction project has been successful so far, the wild population is still small and reintroductions need to continue.

“We don’t know if more captive-bred alligators will be reintroduced into Dongtan park or not. That will depend on the government’s plans,” Li said. “But we plan to re-introduce more captive-bred alligators into Wuchang lake, which is located in Anhui province.”

Jim Breheny, WCS Executive Vice President and Director of WCS’s Bronx Zoo, added: “The release of zoo-bred Chinese alligators to re-establish a breeding population of this endangered crocodilian is a great example of how zoos are playing a major role in conservation efforts around the world.”