- Researchers have found and photographed eight Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) hatchlings in northeastern Cambodia — the first confirmed evidence that the critically endangered species is breeding in this area.
- The new breeding population significantly expands the known breeding range of the species in Cambodia; until now, most breeding was recorded around the Cardamom Mountains landscape in the southwest.
- With fewer than 1,000 adults remaining in the wild globally, the species is on the brink of extinction; threats include habitat loss, hydropower schemes, poaching, and entanglement in fishing gear.
- Wildlife experts say conservation measures, including community engagement, captive breeding and reintroduction programs, will help to ensure Siamese crocodiles’ long-term survival.
They say you should never smile at a crocodile. But that’s exactly what happened on Sept. 9 when a team of researchers discovered a group of eight Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) hatchlings in the Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary, a protected wetland landscape in northeastern Cambodia.
The happy sighting was made by researchers from the Ministry of Environment and WWF-Cambodia while conducting nocturnal surveys of crocodile activity in the wetlands. They also managed to photograph the hatchlings.
This is the first evidence that the critically endangered species is breeding in this part of Cambodia in 10 years of painstaking surveys.
“The Srepok discovery indeed raises hope for Siamese crocodile conservation and survival in the wild, and is a significant finding for the species in Cambodia,” Milou Groenenberg, biodiversity research and monitoring manager for WWF, said in a statement.
According to Sothea Bun, one of the field researchers, the “exciting moment” came after a series of night surveys and many soggy hours scouting locations where crocodile footprints, burrows, tail marks and dung were recorded in prior surveys. Shining a torch into a patch of water, one of the team witnessed the telltale sign of nocturnal life: reflected eyeshine.
Siamese crocodiles, a medium-size freshwater species, were considered virtually extinct in the wild in the 1990s. However, over the past two decades, small, isolated populations have been discovered in wetlands and waterways in Indonesian Borneo, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
Nonetheless, numbers remain perilously low, with scientists estimating the global population of adults in the wild at fewer than 1,000 individuals.
Following the species’ rediscovery in Cambodia two decades ago, systematic surveys have identified Siamese crocodiles in 21 river systems in 11 provinces, with recent assessments putting the Cambodian population at roughly 150 crocodiles.
Steven Platt, associate conservation herpetologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and member of the IUCN’s crocodile specialist group, said most Siamese crocodiles in Cambodia are in the county’s southwest, in the Cardamom Mountains and the Sre Ambel River system.
“It was really good news to hear that they have found them [in Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary],” Platt told Mongabay. “It tells us that there’s a breeding population, which may only be two animals, but it’s a breeding population that we didn’t know about … in the eastern part of the country where there’s not a lot of evidence for the continued survival of Siamese crocodiles.”
Among the threats limiting population recoveries are entanglement and drowning in fishing nets, hydropower schemes that drastically alter water levels in rivers, and habitat destruction and degradation. In Cambodia, habitat loss is not isolated to development corridors — protected areas are in the firing line too.
“Unfortunately for the big population in the Cardamom Mountains, a lot of that area that’s protected has been degazetted … and opened up for settlement, so we don’t really know what’s going to happen there,” Platt said, adding that outside of the Cardamom landscape, Siamese crocodile populations are typically small and isolated. In many cases, the loss of a single male crocodile could spell disaster for these tiny populations.
“The challenge we face in Cambodia is to increase the size of these populations, and increase the number of them, and connect them in some way,” Platt said.
Conservationists share the view that boosting numbers by reintroducing captive-reared crocodiles is the best way forward. To that end, a consortium of government departments and NGOs is cooperating on a Siamese crocodile recovery plan that features a captive-breeding program to produce offspring for reintroduction at suitable sites. To date, this initiative has resulted in the release of more than 100 crocodiles into the wild.
For now, northeastern Cambodia’s new wild hatchlings will remain under “strict and regular law enforcement efforts,” Asnarith Tep, public affairs and advocacy head at WWF-Cambodia, told Mongabay in an email. Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary rangers will conduct boat and foot patrols inside and outside the protected area to make sure the hatchlings remain safe.
Platt of WCS said poaching to supply crocodile farms that harvest the animals’ hides and meat was once a major threat to the species, but is not so much of a concern today. Southeast Asia’s croc farms, of which there are more than 900 in Cambodia, have been undercut by a booming industry in China, so poaching makes little economic sense.
Platt said he is “guardedly optimistic” that the new hatchlings in eastern Cambodia will be able to survive without disturbance from poachers. “I’ve not felt this optimistic about the crocodile situation in Cambodia for many years,” he said. “I really think the fact that there’s no longer a market or incentive to collect these crocodiles is going to give them a break in the wild.”
Banner image: One of the eight Siamese crocodile hatchlings photographed in the Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary in northeast Cambodia in September 2021. Image courtesy of Cambodia Ministry of Environment/WWF-Cambodia
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