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CONSERVATION Essays

A Brief History of Crocodilian Conservation

by Adam Britton

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


Enter the Dragon

Despite the progress made with most crocodilian species, a handful still have a long way to go. The Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis) provides the starkest reminder, and a serious reversal of fortune is needed to prevent its imminent demise in the wild. So why is its conservation not working?

Diminutive cousins of the famous American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), Chinese alligators are found only in eastern China. They exist in a tiny fraction of their former range: a small reserve in a corner of Anhui province. The last count in 1999 revealed less than 150 alligators left in the wild, and declining at nearly 5% per year. Within 15 to 20 years, the creature that inspired the fabled Chinese dragon may disappear from the wild altogether.

But wait a minute! Chinese alligators are protected to the full extent of Chinese and international law, they live in a specially formed reserve, and their habitat is protected. Why are they going extinct? The answer lies in the conflict between alligators and people. Thousands of hectares of former alligator habitat have been converted into agricultural land, essential to feed the thousands of people who live there. Alligators only make life more difficult for these people, eating their valuable ducks and destroying vital irrigation channels. Although a few landowners believe their alligators bring good luck, the majority sees them only as a nuisance, even believing they bring devastating floods. In short, most would rather see the alligators disappear. Without suitable habitat, nor a reason to conserve them, alligator conservation in the wild looks bleak.

However, it is not too late. Chinese researchers dedicated to reversing the trend created a successful captive breeding program, and carried out extensive research on the biology and ecology of the species. Several thousand alligators now exist in captivity, which provides hope for future reintroduction. International support can provide additional resources to secure and improve existing habitat, and novel education and ecotourism projects are in the works. Local people must see that their alligators are important, not only to the environment, but to themselves. This is a recurring theme in crocodilian conservation around the world, and though the methods may differ, the goal remains the same: increase the value of crocodilians to the people who live around them.
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