Cambodia’s most ancient reptile has become its most threatened in recent decades.
Once common throughout Indochina, the Siamese crocodile was declared extinct in the wild in 1992 before a few were discovered in the Cardamom Mountains 15 years ago.
With the population still tiny, the species will not survive for long without human help, say scientists.
“The crocodile’s numbers are now so low that the species cannot recover without help. Very few nests are produced in the wild,” said Dr Jackson Frechette of Fauna and Flora International (FFI), whose Cambodian Crocodile Preservation Programme (CCCP) is a regional leader in captive breeding.
However, help might be on the way with the announcement that the Detroit Zoo is preparing to send 10 Siamese crocodile hatchlings to Cambodia for release into the wild.
“Our conservation efforts have led not only to the successful breeding of Siamese crocodiles but to the addition of zoo-born crocodiles to a critically small wild population – which hopefully will help save the species from extinction,” Scott Carter, chief life sciences officer at the Detroit Zoological Society, was quoted as saying in a statement.
The hatchlings were sent in July to the St Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida and were being fostered by an adult pair of Siamese crocodiles in preparation for release, the statement says.
At about two metres long for adults, the Siamese crocodile is relatively small and docile – roughly half the size of a typical adult male saltwater croc – and its diet consists of fish and snakes.
While other populations have since been discovered in neighbouring countries, the approximately 250 crocs in Cambodia represent up to 80 per cent of surviving individuals.
The overall amount of crocodiles in the region is on the upswing thanks to farming – descendants of purebred Siamese crocodiles number in the hundreds of thousands at farms throughout Southeast Asia.
However, most of the animals have been hybridised with saltwater and Cuban crocodiles.
Charlie Manolis, chief scientist at Wildlife Management International, said even 10 new animals in the wild could make a significant impact given the limited and possibly contaminated gene pool in the wild.
“In the overall scheme of things, the small number that could potentially go from Detroit Zoo to the wild in Cambodia may not sound like much.
But they could help genetic diversity, and it is no doubt important for zoos to be involved in in-situ programs in the countries where these species exist,” he said.
FFI’s current conservation projects includes removing eggs from the wild to be incubated in a hatchery before being released. Croclets have also been bred at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Centre.
Since 2011, more than 50 animals bred in Cambodia have been released by FFI.
Frechette also said he was unaware of any plans to bring crocodiles in from abroad and no officials contacted this week at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries were aware of Detroit Zoo’s plan.
“As we understand, there are no definitive plans to bring zoo-bred Siamese crocodiles from overseas to Cambodia: it is only a possibility, and would not happen without prior approval from the Royal Government of Cambodia,” Frechette said.