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CONSERVATION Essays

A Brief History of Crocodilian Conservation

by Adam Britton

INTRODUCTION | MAN-EATERS | BITING BACK | DRAGONS | SUMMARY


"Behold him rushing forth from the flags and reeds. His enormous belly swells. His plaited tail brandished high, floats upon the lake. The waters like a cataract descend from his opening jaws. Clouds of smoke issue from his dilated nostrils. The earth trembles with his thunder."
WILLIAM BARTRAM (1791)


"They adorn his ears with ear-rings of molten stone or gold, and put bracelets on his fore-paws, giving him daily a set portion of bread, with a certain number of victims; and, after having thus treated him with the greatest possible attention while alive, they embalm him when he dies and bury him in a sacred repository."
HERODOTUS (440 BC)


If any creatures are capable of provoking a range of emotions from us, they are crocodilians. Through their appearance, behaviour and the fantastic myths bestowed upon them, crocodiles and alligators have earned a place in human legend. You would hardly believe that William Bartram was describing an American alligator, and not a mythical beast from the collective imagination of Hollywood. And what is the highly regarded animal described by Herodotus? None other than the Nile crocodile, worshipped by the ancient Egyptians in great temples erected to honour one of the most powerful and influential of all Egyptian deities - the crocodile god Sobek. After being on the planet for 240 million years, perhaps crocodilians demand our respect.

To many ancient cultures, from the Egyptians and Mayans to the aboriginals of Australia and New Guinea, crocodilians represented the power and virility of nature. Yet to others, crocodilians were all that was terrible about nature, becoming nothing more than a dangerous nuisance to be eliminated. In the last few hundred years, this latter view has prevailed. Several species almost went extinct in the third quarter of the 20th century. But today, crocodilians are getting a new lease of life. Dozens of dedicated researchers and conservationists have devoted their lives to saving these magnificent and enduring animals, and their efforts are working.

But how do you conserve a creature despised by so many? Crocodilians did not come with an instruction manual on how to conserve them, so lessons had to be learned along the way. Frankly, an epic book could be written on this subject, but here I simply want to highlight a few important lessons and talk about two species in particular. One of these is considered a conservation success, whereas the other is on the brink of extinction. Conservation, as I hope you will see, is never as simple as we might think.
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