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Of crocs and comebacks

091014_06
A rare Siamese crocodile captured on camera in the Cardamom mountains last year.

Dear Editor,

In the field of environmental conservation, rarely do practitioners find themselves in a position where they are able to make definitive statements regarding the outcomes of their activities without long-term monitoring and collaborative consultation between appropriate government agencies and leading experts. As such, this is the case with the story published in The Phnom Penh Post on October 8 (“Mountain croc making a comeback in the Cardamoms, group reports”). Unfortunately, there is not adequate evidence to suggest that the Siamese crocodile, Crocodylus siamensis, is “multiplying by up to 20 percent each year,” as the subheading states, nor did Fauna & Flora International make this claim.

As the current programme manager of the Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Programme (CCCP), I would like to provide some insight as to why a simple review of crocodile hatchling numbers can be misleading in determining whether or not this species is making a significant recovery as reported in this story. I would also like to shed some light upon the background of our programme, the efforts of the Royal Government of Cambodia and other conservation NGOs, and the complexity of the issues and challenges we all face to save this fascinating creature (and many others like it) from extinction.

The Siamese crocodile was once widespread throughout Southeast Asia, but its range and numbers have been severely reduced due to hunting for skins, habitat alteration for agriculture and, since the 1950s, the collection of live animals for the farming industry. In 1992, the IUCN/SSC Crocodile Specialist Group declared the Siamese crocodile to be “effectively extinct in the wild”. It wasn’t until biological surveys conducted by the Forestry Administration and FFI in 2000 that it was rediscovered in small numbers in the Cardamoms. After extensive surveys throughout the region, it has been confirmed in remnant numbers in Thailand, Laos and at 35 sites in Cambodia (although mostly consisting of one or two non-breeding individuals). Of the estimated 250 individuals remaining in the wild, most of them are thought to be located in the southwest and remote parts of northeast Cambodia.

Since 2000, the CCCP (jointly managed by the FA and FFI) has been surveying crocodile populations throughout Cambodia. During these surveys, we have been able to identify three critically important breeding populations in the Cardamom mountains that represent a significant percentage of the global population of Siamese crocodiles (believed to be up to 60 percent, although this has not been verified). More recently, another population that appears to be significant was observed this year in Mondulkiri by the FA, FFI and WWF; more analysis needs to be undertaken with this population.

Conservation activities by the CCCP to date at these three sites have included community engagement through livelihoods development (in partnership with CEDAC); participatory land-use planning; recruitment of community wardens to conduct regular patrols; providing schoolteachers in remote communities; radio telemetry tracking studies and conducting DNA analysis at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. In addition, other organisations such as Conservation International (CI) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have also been actively involved. CI has been conducting its community stewardship programme in the central Cardamoms, and WCS, with the Fisheries Administration, patrols the Sre Ambel River (recently seizing two juvenile crocodiles from a fisherman) and has conducted radio telemetry studies in the Tonle Sap.

Direct evidence from two of the above-mentioned populations in the south-west show that breeding is occurring; there is also reason to believe breeding is occurring at the third site, but no direct evidence has been collected. As a result of annual transect surveys conducted by the CCCP since 2003, the populations appear to be stable, and there is evidence to suggest that there are slight increases (less than 10 percent totally, not annually, although no statistical analysis has been undertaken as of yet) of young individuals. For example, in 2007, one nest was successfully hatched at one site, resulting in 23 hatchlings, while in 2008, two nests were successfully hatched at another, resulting in 34 hatchlings. This year, however, the CCCP has not been able to successfully locate any new nests with the exception of one that appeared to have been poached in early June.

It must also be stressed how difficult it is to verify the mortality rates of young crocodiles at these sites due to the remoteness and difficulty of terrain, although community wardens working with the CCCP have had multiple sightings of young crocodiles on more than 25 different occasions during patrols since 2008. Such sightings are encouraging, but again it is impossible to verify if the wardens are observing several different individuals or the same individuals during their patrols. Finally, perhaps one of the most important issues that needs to be pointed out is that it is unwise to consider hatchlings to be a final measure of population increase because Siamese crocodiles do not reach sexual maturity until 15 years of age, during which time one successful nest may result in only a few surviving adults able to breed.

In short, while some evidence is encouraging, as my colleague Sam Han had explained in the October 8 article, there are a series of complex issues that wild Siamese crocodiles face. It simply cannot be definitively stated if these populations are increasing – or decreasing – by an exact percentage without further long-term monitoring of key populations, especially since new significant challenges and threats are emerging. These include major hydro-electricity developments in key rivers and increased human encroachment upon habitats. There is still much more work that needs to be done to ensure this flagship species does not – once again – find itself declared as “effectively extinct in the wild”.

Adam Starr
Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Programme

Send letters to: newsroom@phnompenhpost.com or PO Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length.
The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.

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