Handbag made from a West African dwarf crocodile
Crocs have a reputation biult on ignorance and bad movies. Most people think of crocodiles and alligators as one and the same thing, and imagine that they all try to gobble up anyone or anything they can get. This is an amazing view - amazing in it's stupidity - but one that is very hard to shake from the public mind.
Unfortunately, most crocodile documentaries faocus on large saltwater crocs leaping at the camera, or Nile crocs grabbing wildebeasts from the shore. This serves to strengthen the view that crocs are all big, hungry and mean.
People don't therefore know about the caimans, or the dwarf croc, or Chinese alligator, and the gharial is shown usually as an oddity. They don't realise the diversity of living crocodilians. These all share the same basic anatomy and physiology, but differ in temperament, size and habit.
This is of course not unique to crocodiles: there are NO valid accounts of anyone ever having been attacked and killed by piranhas, for example! Yet look at the fierce reputation they have. It's a funny world!
So, given the ferocious reputation , how do you get people on their side ? Sadly, the answer is money.
Croc farms have sprung up in croc countries across the world. The idea is simple: wild crocodilian populations have a very high natural mortality of hatchlings - over 90% in some cases. So, if the 90% that would have succumbed to predation are raised in croc farms, and then used for the skin trade, the market for skins can be satisfied, without detrimental effects on the wild croc population. Of course, careful monitoring is required to successfully implement such management programs.
Detailed surveys are required to monitor wild populations - both the numbers and the make-up of the population (ie. no. of juveniles, adults, breeding females etc). If need be, older crocs (over about 3 feet) will be released to boost wild numbers. The reintroduced individuals will already be large enough to avoid predation by the major offenders - which target eggs and hatchlings, mainly.
In countries that have stable political and economic environments eg USA, Australia, the farms are run like other business. Other revenue comes in the form of tourism. These countries have strict laws and policie that are strongly enforced to protect wild animals and their habitat. Illegal trade is therefore of little concern.
However, in other countries, whilst laws exist, they are not enforced to the full. This means that an illegal trade can exist. In these countries, incentives are required to stop the locals from wiping out the crocs for short-term gain. The answer is to make the wild populations and their habitat valuable. Land owners are paid for eggs and/or juvenile crocs collected from their land. It becomes another source of income to them.
The farms are often run by indigenous people. Thus, an entire community benefits from the management of wild crocs, and the habitat is preserved.
Since the focus of most management programs is based at least in part on the skin trade, poor little Paleosuchus has received little attention in this area.
Most survey data available has been collected whilst other crocodilians (usually C crocodilus or M niger) were being surveyed. As a result, the data is basic, sparse and incomplete.
Similarly, since research is partly funded by the skin trade, and is often carried out with aims to understanding the species with an eye toward management programs, Paleosuchus studies are fewer in number than just about all other species.
So why are they of little value to the skin trade, and poor candidates for management programs? Their extensive osteoderms, across their entire body, including the tummy, means that they are almost worthless to the skin trade. They have small adult sizes, so less leather is available per caiman, anyway. Their habitat is often inaccessible, relative to the larger caimans that frequent the larger rivers, and Paleosuchus are non-gregarious - not found in large groups. THis has all been to their benefit - and they have remained relatively untouched by the widespread slaughter of crocodilians earlier this century.
Farming takes years to start paying for itself. Since Paleosuchus are very slow-growing, mature at 10 - 20 years of age, and breed every 2 or 3 years, they are not ideal for the farming business. Especially since the end product would fetch a much lower price! Needless to say, it would probably cost more to raise and care for a Paleosuchus than what would be made from the sale of its skin.
Despite poor survey data, the 2 Paleosuchus species appear to be still widespread and numerous. They are in no immediate threat of becoming endangered, but need to be monitored, and legal trade is allowed. They are further classed as 'Lower risk'. They remain widespread and locally abundant. Data on population trends is lacking.
The main threats are habitat destruction and local subsistence hunting. Apparently, Paleosuchus taste nicer than Caiman crocodilus and Melanosuchus niger!
Current status surveys report populations of 0.83 - 2.20 /km in Ecuador, to 2.7/km in Surinam for P. palpebrosus. Similar figures exist for P. trigonatus: 0.7 - 2.5 /km in Surinam.
These surveys are often carried out by one of the following methods:
Nightcounts are affected by tides, season, weather and even moon light.
Aerial surveys are not appropriate for the tropical rainforest habitat. Paleosuchus aren't the professional 'baskers' that other species are, anyway.
Their habitat and their habits (ie. camping out in their burrows beneath the water line) mean that most surveys methods are inappropriate, and surveying can take many months. Ouboter found the capture-recapture method the most accurate for determining populations of all caimans. Perhaps a combination of methods is required for Paleosuchus. Either way, it is apparent that substantial time and effort is required for accurate population figures to be gathered for Paleosuchus species.
The only figures I've seen regarding skin trade is for Paleosuchus palpebrosus. In 1981, in Colombia, 15,231 skins were traded. The total for all caimans (most probably C crocodilus) in the period 1980 -1984 was about 2.5 million. So P. palpebrosus skins accounted for, at most, 0.5% of the total.