Alligator sinensis (FAUVEL, 1879)



A. mississippiensis
A. sinensis
C. crocodilus
C. c. apaporiensis
C. c. fuscus
C. latirostris
C. yacare
M. niger
P. palpebrosus
P. trigonatus


C. acutus
C. intermedius
C. johnstoni
C. mindorensis
C. moreletii
C. niloticus
C. novaeguineae
C. palustris
C. porosus
C. rhombifer
C. siamensis
M. cataphractus
O. tetraspis
T. schlegelii


G. gangeticus



This information was most-recently updated January 2009 and is considered up-to-date. Please contact me directly regarding updates or corrections.

Chinese alligator, Yangtze alligator, T'o, Tou Lung, Yow Lung, China alligator

> Alligator is derived from the Spanish el lagarto which means "the lizard"
> sinensis means "of China", derived from sinae (Latin for "Chinese") + ensis (Latin for "belonging to")

Distribution map China: restricted to areas around the lower Yangtze River (Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui). Most known wild animals restricted to a 433 km² reserve in Anhui province, very small numbers in Jiangau and Zhejiang, apparently extirpated elsewhere.

A. sinensis prefers slow-moving freshwater rivers and streams, including lakes, ponds and swamps. Also found in both low-elevation agricultural and tree farm communes. These areas can be up to 100 m above sea level. Alligators spend a considerable period each year (6 to 7 months) hibernating within complex burrow systems in order to escape the climatic extremes associated with the northerly latitudes at which they occur. Temperatures within burrows rarely fall below 10 C.

     CITES: Appendix I
     Estimated wild population: under 200
Summary: Wild populations have very limited distribution and are virtually extinct, but captive populations are healthy. Reintroduction programs offer hope, but until they are implemented extinction in the wild remains probable.

[click on image for enlargement]
Head drawing One of the smaller crocodilian species, reaching around 2 m (reports of 3 m individuals exist in Chinese historical literature, but this is unlikely today). Adults may weigh up to 40kg. Juveniles are black with bright yellow cross-banding, similar to juveniles of A. mississippiensis, which have a greater number of bands. Unlike A. mississippiensis, however, A. sinensis has bony plates on each upper eyelid (palpebrals). The end of the snout is slightly upturned, and is more tapered than A. mississippiensis. The teeth are better adapted for crushing, as they feed extensively on hard-shelled molluscs. The ventral body scales are ossified, making the skin fairly worthless on the international market.

Dentition codeDENTITION:
5 pre-maxillary; 13-14 maxillary; 18-19 mandibular
Total no. of teeth = 72-76

[click on image for enlargement]

Click Head of juvenile Chinese alligator Click Submerged adult female Click Hatchling alligator held in hand

Alligators hunt mainly at night when the temperatures rise between April and October. They feed mainly on aquatic invertebrates (mainly snails and mussels for which their dentition is adapted) and vertebrates such as fish. Like all crocodilians, they are opportunistic and will take other prey when available, including rats and ducks.

Young alligators grow rapidly, and females reach sexual maturity around 4 to 5 years of age. Breeding behaviour begins during the northern Summer, when temperatures are warmer and hence alligators are more active at night. Mound nests are constructed from plant materials, in a similar way to those of A. mississippiensis, although A. sinensis nests are smaller. The nests are constructed between July and August, into which between 10 and 50 eggs are laid. Clutch size is usually slightly smaller than A. mississippiensis. The incubation period lasts around 70 days at normal incubation temperatures (ie. 30° celsius)

Despite their timid nature, Chinese alligators have historical associations with the mythical Chinese dragon, yet these have not saved this species from human impact. Alligator sinensis is currently battling it out with Crocodylus mindorensis for the unenviable distinction of being the world's most endangered crocodilian, although recent progress by the Chinese government means the future outlook is now a little brighter. Habitat destruction has been the major cause of decline, with most wetland areas being modified due to human population pressures. The building of dams has been one significant factor in this destruction, although turning marshland into agricultural land has been the most relevant threat for remaining populations. Wild populations in areas where natural wetlands remain are extremely low (and possibly extirpated), partly due to extensive flooding in the recent past (1957). Most of the remaining alligators exist in areas which have already been partially modified for agricultural purposes. This means that they frequently come into conflict with humans trying to raise food - burrows cause drainage problems in fields, and the adults will take farmed ducks. To a Chinese farmer, the alligator is nothing but a costly nuisance to be eliminated where possible.

Although A. sinensis is a secretive species, often living undisturbed within burrows around densely populated human areas, individuals that are found are typically killed out of fear or because of the problems they cause for farmers. Killed animals are usually taken to markets, where many of their organs are sold as cures for a number of ailments, despite legal protection of the species (under the Law of Wildlife Conservation of the People's Republic of China) and many of the reserves they are found in. Increased education of the status of the species could help to prevent this, but the main impetus must be to convince locals of their value in the wild. Due to the presence of osteoderms in the ventral scales, the skin is hard to tan and the resulting hide has little commercial value in internatinal markets, although the skin and especially the meat have much greater value within China. Small quantities of meat from captive bred animals are legally sold in local markets and restaurants, with the funds raised helping local alligator management.

Information on the status of the wild population has been limited, but recent updated surveys do not paint a promising picture. Surveys in the 1980s revealed a significant decline in wild alligator numbers. In the province of Anhui (where the 433km² Anhui Chinese Alligator National Nature Reserve has since been set up), the population was estimated to stand at around 500 animals. It was then thought that the population was increasing, but recent surveys in 1999 by the Wildlife Conservation Society gave the alarming news that the wild population stood between 130 and 150 individuals. Conversely, the captive population is extremely healthy due to a successful breeding program, with over 10,000 alligators in the research centre in Anhui. The first breeding at Anhui took place in 1988. 10 wild nests were recorded in Anhui in 1996 (Wan Ziming, pers comm), whereas in 1999 only a couple of nests were located, and none produced viable hatchlings. Despite the presence of the reserve, human population pressure is still severe as over 1 million people living there. Recruitment into the alligator population has been estimated to be low (0.4% growth per annum in the last decade) with adults making up over 55% of the wild population. This is now likely much higher. Numbers of alligators in areas outside the reserve are very low.

The Anhui Research Centre of Chinese Alligator Reproduction (ARCCAR) houses captive-bred alligators living within 26 small protected reserves. The conservation value of these centres has been criticised, however, by the general lack of programs aimed at restocking wild populations, but the Chinese government has now made remarkable progress in setting this situation straight. Several million US$ are being allocated to the creation of new alligator habitat, and reintroducing captive alligators back into the wild. This work is hoped to start as early as 2003. In other countries, Chinese alligators have been successful bred at several location in Europe and the US. The survival of this species will depend on the support of not only the Chinese government, but also the local people who have to live with alligators in one of the most productive farming areas in China. Progress is being made changing perceptions about the much-maligned alligator, but there is still a lot of work to do.

For more information on conservation initiatives for this species, see the CSG
Action Plan resource.


  • Behler, J (1993). Species Survival Plan for the Chinese alligator. Crocodile Specialist Group Newsletter 12(4): 18
  • Chen, B (1990). Preliminary studies of the home range of the Chinese alligator. In: Crocodiles. Proceedings of the 10th Working Meeting of the Crocodile Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. pp. 43-46
  • Chen, B, Choalin, W & Baodong, L (1990). Observations on the burrow of Chinese alligator. In: Crocodiles. Proceedings of the 10th Working Meeting of the Crocodile Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. pp. 47-53
  • Jinzhong, F (1994). Conservation, management and farming of crocodiles in China. In: Crocodiles. Proceedings of the 2nd Regional Meeting of the Crocodile Specialist Group. IUCN & Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory, Australia.
  • Huang, C-C (1982). The ecology of the Chinese alligator and changes in its geographical distribution. In: Crocodiles. Proceedings of the 5th Meeting of the IUCN/SSC Crocodile Specialist Group, Gainesville, Florida. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. pp. 91-102


    Return to Crocodilians Natural History & Conservation
    Design and content by Adam Britton © 1995-2012 All rights reserved. [email]