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The Unloved Ones – Why Crocodilians Deserve Love Too

Crocodilians – One of the Last Archosaurs

There are twenty-three species of crocodile left in the world today, the last of a great and diverse group of reptiles that can trace their origins back some 250 million years. The tropics in what we know as the New and Old worlds have crocodiles in their various shapes and forms, but all of these species are endangered and vulnerable to extinction. Crocodiles are one of the main branches of the Reptile subclass called Archosauria, sometimes referred to as “ruling reptiles” because of these creatures’ dominance of terrestrial habitats during the Mesozoic Era. As one of the main branches of the Archosauria family tree, crocodyliforms (the term used to refer to all types of crocodiles, alligators, caimans and gharials), share a common ancestor with flying reptiles and the dinosaurs. The only other surviving members of the Archosaur family alive today are the birds.

Alligators, Crocodiles, Gharials and Caimans

Of the twenty-three extant species, only thirteen are true crocodiles, the other members of this group are either the broader snouted Alligators, Caimans (restricted to the New World) and the narrow snouted gharials (restricted to the Old World). Although a number of individual species have extensive ranges all types of crocodyliforms are covered by CITES (the convention on international trade for endangered species, although certain species are more endangered than other species.

The problem is, these creatures do not have many allies amongst humans. All of these animals even some of the smaller species such as the Broad-nosed crocodile (Osteolaemus tetrapis) of central and western Africa, which rarely exceeds six feet in length is capable of inflicting very serious injuries. Attacks on children are rare that there have been reports of fatalities. Large crocodyliforms such as the American Alligator (Alligator mississipiensis) have been known to attack people, and many pet cats and dogs are eaten by these reptiles in Florida each year. However, man has had a devastating effect on Alligator populations in the past. In the period, 1880 to 1894 it has been estimated that some 2.25 million were slaughtered in the wild many for their valuable hides.

The very largest species of true crocodiles which can exceed lengths of twelve feet or more are all known to be man-eaters. The Saltwater or Estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is responsible for a number of fatal attacks each year. The Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) has a formidable reputation, as does the Mugger crocodile of Asia – Crocodylus palustris. There are often conflicts of interest between local fishermen and villagers and a resident crocodile population, especially since human settlements have moved into areas bordering swamps as the human population grows. It is the crocodiles that end up being slaughtered, people and these apex predators don’t mix well.

The skin from the underside of many types of crocodiles has been sort after for thousands of years as it makes an extremely soft and luxurious leather. Crocodiles are hunted for sport and there is a lot of intensive poaching of young animals for the pet trade. It has been estimated that more than one million young crocodiles are exported from South America each year for the pet trade. Pollution has affected a number of crocodile populations as has loss of suitable habitat. The Indian Gharial is perhaps the rarest of all the crocodyliforms, with only about two hundred wild specimens left. A number of adult animals succumbed to disease, perhaps chemical poisoning due to river pollution and the breeding population in the wilds of India has decreased significantly. The gharial is now listed as “critically endangered” under CITES. These magnificent fish-eaters nearly became extinct in the wild in the 1970s but a captive breeding and release programme brought this species back from the brink of extinction. However, attempts to reintroduce individuals to the wild have been hampered by the lack of suitable range available to the gharials. There are simple not enough suitable release sites available.

Unfortunately, many people find it hard to love these scaly monsters, with their fearsome and in many cases deserved reputations for man-eating. However, it is not just the cute and cuddly pandas that need our protection. Indeed, it could be argued that the money lavished on trying to maintain panda populations may be better spent on trying to protect crocodile species around the world.

Why Crocodiles over Pandas

Crocodiles are certainly not cute, the lack the fur of mammals but they do play a more important role in the food chains than does the Giant Panda of China for example. The American crocodile when fully mature eats a lot of rodents and thus helps to keep down pest numbers. The American alligator excavates ponds in the swampland of Florida and these “Alligator holes” provide an oasis of water during droughts in the region. These sites can support a vast range of native flora and fauna, all of which depend on the adult alligators to dig the ponds in the first place.

All members of the Crocodyliforms are covered by CITES regulations. For some species, the trade in any goods produced from the animals, bones, skin, meat is prohibited. Population numbers are so low as to make any trade a real threat to the species survival. Some crocodile products can be traded but this is carried out under strict CITES supervision.

Visiting Schools Teaching about Crocodilian Preservation

When visiting schools working with young students from five years and upwards we use the example of crocodiles to explain extinction. We contrast the crocodiles with those other reptilian members of the Archosauria the dinosaurs, and try to get over the need to protect all animals and their habitats as best as we can. When asked to name an animal in danger of being made extinct due to the activities of our species the students tend to name mammals as examples. However, we are doing our best to help convince the conservationists of the future that even the unloved scaly monsters such as the crocodiles need our protection too.

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