Return of the Crocs

Conserving the ancient anomalies of the swamps

By: Becky Dong

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Crocodiles were never the cutest or the cuddliest of the creatures. They’d often take the role of the storybook villain, belly-crawling out of their swamps, snapping their big jaws studded with sharp, pointy teeth that pack a deathly bite. However, despite their scary demeanour, they are fascinating evolutionary marvels.

These creatures have been around since the Early Jurassic and have been a mystery ever since. Despite roaming this earth for 200 million years, crocodiles only have twenty-four living species, an anomaly in evolution as changes in geographical factors, immigration, and interactions over a large stretch of time typically result in an increase in species diversity. Birds are a great example. They have been around for 150 million years, and there are 9,700 species due to evolution and diversification. The stark contrast between the diversity of crocodiles and birds raises a question regarding the rate of evolution in crocodiles. A study on environmental drivers of crocodile size evolution by Dr. Maximilian T. Stockdale determined that the limited diversity and lack of evolution are due to a slow evolutionary rate, indicating that crocodiles seem to have reached a body plan that was efficient enough for survival. It’s also a wonder that these crocodiles have existed for so long. Larger animals have a higher risk for extinction as they require more food intake and take longer to reach sexual maturity, making survival increasingly difficult under more extreme conditions.

Despite their efficient body plan and prolonged existence, their numbers are dwindling, and this loss of crocodiles would have a significant impact on several ecosystems. It is believed that up to 38% of the ecological functions that crocodiles provide for ecosystems would be lost, such as the shelter they create for other animals through their burrowing systems, their maintenance of the natural food chain, and their management of pests.

The fact that these animals were able to persist through such a long stretch of evolutionary time only to be at risk of extinction due to human activity is grim. Humans have been an accelerator of decay for the entire planet despite our extremely short existence in this world. Although we are the problem, we can be the solution as well. Conservation is vital for protecting and maintaining species that face the risk of extinction, and with good planning and resources, we can restore their populations.

The Indian Crocodile Conservation Project

The killing of crocodiles for commercial purposes and increased human activity encroaching on the rivers and other traditional habitats of the crocodiles have led to a decline in the crocodile population. The observation of this phenomenon led the Indian government to create the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972 to protect these crocodiles’ habitats. Unfortunately, this was not enough; the crocodiles in the river systems of Odisha were on the brink of extinction. In 1975, the Crocodile Conservation Project was launched as a joint effort between the Indian government and UNDP/FAO to protect the crocodiles at risk.

To save the three species of crocodiles in Odisha, they implemented a ‘grow and release’ technique to quickly rebuild the natural population. This involved the integration of natural habitats and ideal laboratory conditions. Eggs would be collected from natural nests, then incubated, hatched, and reared in ideal captive-husbandry conditions, therefore eliminating predation and maximizing the chances of survival. These young crocodiles would then be marked and released into protected areas to ensure safe integration and ease of assessing the results. With this information, the Indian government and UNDP/FAO were able to adjust their methods to maximize crocodile reproductive success.

Additionally, the Indian government and UNDP/FAO included the locals in the process to develop both the relationship and understanding locals have with neighborhood wildlife. Fishermen who rely on these sanctuaries for a living were given an alternative source of income so that conservation is not detrimental to the humans around them. The conservation programme was even extended to villages by providing locals with training to bring live food for hatchlings. Additionally, commercial crocodile farming was promoted to make conservation lucrative and more effective with local engagement and support. Involvement of locals in conservation efforts has proven to be a win-win as they are able to support the enforcement of protective measures while receiving financial benefits in return.

Unfortunately, seven species of crocodiles are currently considered Critically Endangered, and four are considered Vulnerable. While steps are being taken to protect them, the continued survival of this Jurassic animal is still greatly at risk. Although we don’t necessarily have crocodiles in our backyard or even in the wild in Canada, there are still ways to take action and support crocodile conservation worldwide. A great way to contribute would be donating to conservation charities such as the World Wide Fund for Nature.

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