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Rescuing Siamese crocodiles from dam threat

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Only 250 Siamese crocodiles remain in the wild - 15 of those are threatened by a hydropower dam under construction in the Cardamom Mountains in Southwest Cambodia. Wildlife Alliance and Flora and Fauna International are partnering to save them.

Lurking in the still waters by the banks of a Cambodian lake is a silent killer.

However, the Siamese crocodile is itself in grave danger.

Less than 100 years ago, this large reptile was abundant in much of Southeast Asia.

But today Siamese crocodiles are listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered with fewer than 250 adults left in the wild, almost all of which are in remote parts of southwest and northeast Cambodia.

Sam Han is the Cambodian Forestry Administration Project Officer of the Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Project set up in 2000 to help save the Siamese crocodile from extinction.

He explains the threats that could consign this reptile to the history books:

"In the past the big threat to crocodiles was from villagers hunting them either to sell or to keep them in a crocodile farm. But now the biggest problem is hydroelectric dams being built in the crocodile areas."

That's why crocodile hunters from Australia are in Cambodia rounding up the crocs in peril. It's a dangerous business, not for the faint-hearted.

These guys learned their trade at the Australia Zoo with the legendary, and fearless, Steve Irwin - the TV celebrity, wildlife expert and conservationist, known simply as The Crocodile Hunter.

The crocs may not look too pleased but today's crocodile hunters are here to airlift the Siamese crocs to safety, away from habitats threatened by massive dam building projects.

One of the dams is the Stung Atay Hydropower Project deep in the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia's rugged southwest.

The area is heavily targeted by foreign investors looking to profit from huge untapped resources. The Cambodian government last week (April 8) halted plans, previously approved, for a Cambodian company to develop a controversial titanium mine in the environmentally sensitive Southern Cardamom Protected Forest. The area is home to Cambodia's biggest population of wild elephants and more than 70 endangered species, according to the Washington DC-based Wildlife Alliance.

Stung Atay is one of 14 large scale hydro-power dams proposed in Cambodia since 2003, including five in the Cardamoms.

Construction began in 2008 after the government signed an agreement with Chinese company, Sinohydro. 

Once completed, the dam will have a capacity of 120 Megawatts, and a reservoir greater than 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres).

The site is believed to contain up to 15 adult Siamese crocodiles trapped in a 750 metre stretch of river located directly downstream from the construction site.

As Brian Coulter, Head of the Rescue Unit at Australia Zoo explains, a high tech airlift is the only way out:

"This is the problem we're facing. You see with the dam wall here the crocodiles can't go upstream, but that massive waterfall downstream means the crocodiles can't go down and in the middle they're trapped between all this construction. So, they don't have much hope. We're going to try to get them out of there."

The team from Australia Zoo's Wildlife Rescue Unit spent two years in preparation for the rescue with Flora International's (FFI) Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Project. Their experience is essential for such a delicate and dangerous operation.

Adam Starr, FFI Project Manager, spotted the danger two years ago:

"We had determined in 2009 that the dam site B of this hydro dam project was actually about 150 metres upstream from where this population of animals that we've been working with for ten years is situated. So we realised there was a dire need to get those animals out of there, do some form of mitigation with the government to make sure that these animals could be saved."

Before travelling to the dam site, the team worked with local staff on crocodile capture methods developed by the late Steve Irwin.

Once on location, the head of the Rescue Unit, Brian Coulter, explains the mission.

The team patrol the area in boats looking for any signs of the shy creatures.

They also train locals how to safely catch the crocodiles using baited nets instead of snares which can cause serious injuries.

Training local people how to safely trap the crocodiles is an important part of the strategy.

Aerial monitoring should help protect new site, says John Moloy, Chief Communications Officer with the Wildlife Alliance who regularly patrol the area:

"This area, now that the Siamese crocodiles are being released here, will benefit from our ability to have ranger patrols and aerial monitoring to check out the area and make sure it stays preserved and protected."

In a country renowned for rampant deforestation and loss of wildlife habitat the fate of the Siamese crocodile - and many other endangered species - will be dependant of the work of agencies like the Wildlife Alliance. 

They can only hope that the Cambodian government will heed the calls to slow down development in environmentally sensitive and supposedly protected areas like this.

Siamese crocodile facts:

  • Wild Siamese crocodiles in Cambodia feed mostly on fish and snakes, but also crabs, insects, birds and small mammals
  • There are no known records of Siamese crocodiles ever intentionally attacking a human being
  • Threats – previously the greatest threat was hunting Siamese crocodiles for their skins; now large scale hydro-power dam developments  and habitat loss threaten remaining key breeding populations
  • There is a rich cultural heritage of crocodiles in Cambodia; stone carvings of Siamese crocodiles can be found on the walls of ancient Angkorian Temples

The award-winning Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Programme (CCCP) was established by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in partnership with the Royal Government of Cambodia and local communities to save these Critically Endangered crocodiles and their globally important wetlands, using scientific research and activities that achieve measurable outputs.

 

See amazing pictures of the crocodiles at Phnom Tamao wildlife center on the website of photographer Luke Duggleby.

See a video of Rescuing Endangered Siamese Crocodiles on the website of Wildlife Alliance.

See also Cardamoms: last true wilderness on our Destination Sihanoukville pages.

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