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Dams threaten Siamese crocs

Rare reptiles face shrinking habitat in mountains of Pursat

THE construction of hydro-electric dams in the Cardamom Mountains in central Cambodia will damage the habitat of an endangered species of Siamese crocodiles, conservationists have warned.

The reptiles are also called mountain crocodiles because they live in the rugged altitudes of Koh Kong and Pursat provinces, with a few in the northeast,  said Nhek Ratanapich, national coordinator of Flora and Fauna International's Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Programme.

"The Cardamom Mountains are the largest breeding habitat for endangered Siamese crocodiles," Nhek Ratanapich said. "Their numbers are small, so it is hard to gather them for breeding."

But three new hydro-electric projects in Pursat province have been approved by the government since May of this year.

And Siamese crocodiles cannot survive in areas flooded by dams, said Seng Bunra, country director of Conservation International.

The China Datang Corporation and its partners, CHD Cambodia Hydropower Development and Cambodia Power Grid, unveiled plans in May to invest US$313.36 million to build the 120MW Atay River dam, which is due for completion in 2012. Two others were approved in mid-June, including the China National Heavy Machinery Corporation's $540 million project to build the 246MW Tatay River dam, due for completion in 2013, and the 338MW Russey Chrum Krom project, to be completed in 2015 by the Michelle Corporation at a cost of $495.7 million. The approval of two more dams is pending.

"This species is almost extinct and is now found only in Cambodia, Indonesia, and parts of India and Africa," said Seng Bunra.

"A new natural habitat should be prepared to evacuate Siamese crocodiles because such crocodiles prefer to live in lakes or valleys in the mountains at least 500 metres above sea level."

He estimated that there was a population of 260-280 of the crocodiles currently living in the Cardamom Mountains and warned that flooding their habitat would reduce breeding opportunities.

A VERY SHY SPECIES

Siamese crocodiles rarely attack humans. They can grow to a length of up to four metres and a weight of about 150 kilograms. They can live as long as 80 years and are an endangered species in Southeast Asia, facing extinction.

A female crocodile can lay 30-40 eggs, while less than 20 percent escape being eaten by other animals.

Nhek Ratanapich said that environmental impact studies may have mitigated some of the harm caused to the crocodiles by the hydro-power projects.

But he also pointed out that the reptiles are endangered throughout Southeast Asia.

"Cambodia is one of the last habitats for this species," he said. "Some foreign tourists are also interested in seeing them - they are an eco-tourism attraction."

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