Testing at wildlife centre finds higher-than-expected number of pure-blooded animals, raising the species’ odds of survival.
DNA testing has revealed that 35 of 69 crocodiles at a wildlife centre are pure-blooded Siamese crocodiles, officials announced on Tuesday, offering new hope for this critically endangered species, whose numbers in the wild are estimated at only 250.
Nhek Ratanapech, director of the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, said: “We were very surprised that it was 35 out of 69. It’s great – before, I thought there would maybe be just three or four.”
The genetic survey of the Phnom Tamao crocodiles began in February and was organised by the Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Programme (CCCP), a partnership of Flora and Fauna International (FFI), the Forestry Administration and Wildlife Alliance. Scientists at Kasetsart University in Bangkok analysed the genetic material and delivered the results to the CCCP in mid-October.
Adam Starr, FFI programme manager and coordinator of the CCCP, said the Siamese crocodiles at the centre had the potential to help the species rebound with human help.
“We are going to develop a breeding programme using the stock here. Our goal is to try to double the population in five years, which is ambitious, but hopefully we can attain it,” he said. Breeding is expected to begin early next year, after the Siamese crocodiles are moved to their own dedicated facility.
Siamese crocodile skin yields exceptionally soft leather, a trait that is largely responsible for the species’ depletion over the last century. “The biggest threat is poaching,” Starr said. “The leather industry virtually eliminated Siamese crocodiles from the wild.”
Poachers continue to hunt Siamese crocodiles illegally for their skin or sell them to commercial farms across the region, where they are crossbred with the larger, faster-growing saltwater variety, further eroding the species. The remaining crocodiles at the rescue centre are all hybrids of this kind.
The other major threat to the freshwater Siamese crocodile is habitat destruction.
Starr said much of the animal’s former range has already been cleared for farmland, and that now “key rivers within the crocodiles’ habitat are slated to have hydroelectric dams built on them.”
Starr could not specify which rivers these were because the contracts for the plants have not been signed, but he did say that they were in southwestern Cambodia, where 95 percent of the remaining wild Siamese crocodiles are thought to live.