The Jaws of Extinction – Siamese Crocodile

Friday, November 4, 2011posted by Bruce 11:59 AM

The wild Siamese crocodile is one of the most endangered crocodilian species in the world, and extreme efforts to save this species in Thailand from total extinction need to be implemented quickly

A wild Siamese crocodile in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary

Just its head and snout are showing; Note the large forest fly on the eye node

The murky waters of a forest pool in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary lay still and quiet during the mid-morning heat. Occasionally, a fish catching an insect would disrupt the mirror image of the pond, where forest meets water. A dead leaf gently floating down landed on the surface, causing ripples in the pool. A pair of wreathed hornbill were croaking nearby and, high in the trees, pileated gibbon sang to their crescendo.

Situated in Chachoengsao province, Khao Ang Rue Nai consists of semi-evergreen forest and many streams. The forest is surrounded by farmlands and had been squeezed down to the last 1,030 square kilometres before being designated as a wildlife sanctuary in 1977. Still, it is the largest tract of lowland forest left in eastern Thailand.

The same crocodile as above camera trapped but several years later

Fortunately, enough forest was saved where elephant, gaur, banteng and many other species have been able to survive. More than that, it is also home to possibly the last wild crocodile in the Eastern part of the country. Now extremely rare in the wild, crocodiles used to rule freshwater habitats in this part of the world. And they have been around for longer than most living animals.

The earliest crocodile evolved during the Triassic Period, some 200 million years ago, a time when primitive dinosaurs also roamed the planet. The Triassic Period was the first period of the larger Mesozoic Era, which was known also as the Age of Reptiles. However, by the close of the Mesozoic some 65 million years ago, most primitive reptiles save the crocodile had died out.

Another Siamese crocodile in Kaeng Krachan National Park

The largest fossilised crocodile remains ever found, in what is now Texas, date back about 80 million years to the late Cretaceous Period, revealing a creature estimated to have been 15 metres long and weighing over four tonnes. Only the skull of this huge crocodilian was found and it was two metres in length.

These submarine predators exist in swamps, rivers, lakes and seas, only coming out on to land to bask in the sun. Their strongest attribute is a streamlined body which enables them to glide through water with ease, surfacing and submerging at will. Crocodile are extremely secretive, disappearing without a trace in seconds. Perfect carnivores in every way, they eat very little in relation to their body size. Being very efficient creatures, they should be around for a long time to come. But sadly, that may not be the case.

Siamese crocodile in Khao Ang Rue Nai photographed by forest ranger Khun Kitti

Thailand once had three species of wild crocodile in abundance. They could be found in rivers and marshy areas of the Central Plains, and the forested areas of the East, Northeast, West and South.

The freshwater Siamese crocodile, Crocodylus siamensis, which today is just surviving in a few protected areas, was the most common. The tomistoma or false gharial, Tomistoma schlegelii, a thin-snouted freshwater species, was found in rivers of the southern peninsula. The largest crocodile in the world, the estuarine saltwater crocodile, Crocodylus porosus, was also very common in river mouths and islands in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.

The same croc as above by Khun Kitti

The gharial and saltwater croc are now extinct in the wild of Thailand, but are farmed along with the Siamese. A hybrid crocodile has also been reared in captivity, by breeding the Siamese with the saltwater croc, and this animal is primarily the one used for its meat and hide.

At the end of World War Two, crocodile farming was coming into vogue and animals were captured from the wild for breeding stock. It is an indisputable fact that they have disappeared in the wild as a result of habitat loss and the creation of crocodile farming. There was no protection since the reptiles were considered pests by many people living close to wild crocodile habitat.

Fresh Siamese crocodile tracks by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan

The last remnants are now confirmed in Khao Ang Rue Nai wildlife sanctuary and Kaeng Krachan national park. In April of this year, a fresh set of crocodile tracks was discovered (by the writer) along the river near Phanoen Thung Mountain in Kaeng Krachan. Ten kilometres downriver, another set of tracks had been found previously by camera trap specialists working with the Royal Forest Department, and a photograph was taken of a single crocodile on a sandbank by using an infrared camera trap in daylight. It is presumed that a viable population exists in Kaeng Krachan but more research is needed on how many crocodile are actually there.

There are reports that Siamese crocodile may still exist in Pang Sida national park in Sa Kaeo province, Yot Dom national park in Ubon Ratchathani province, and Phu Khieo wildlife sanctuary in Chaiyaphum province, but most are old reports from 1993. Other than Kaeng Krachan, the only place with photographic evidence of the crocodile’s presence is Khao Ang Rue Nai.

Khlong Takrow in Khao Ang Rue Nai; home to one male croc

Feeding mainly on fish, the freshwater crocodile will also take frogs, birds and small mammals when opportunity arises. With their powerful tail while tucking in their legs, they can glide through water without making a ripple. Using stealth, they move up very close to prey along the waters edge and then, in an instant, grab their victim in powerful jaws before pulling it below and drowning it.

If the carcass is too large to swallow whole, they stash it under water until ripe and then tear it apart. However, adult crocodile can survive for a year or more without a meal.

Perhaps that’s one thing that has enabled the crocodile of Khao Ang Rue Nai to keep quiet and survive. But unless proper protection is provided, it may not be lucky for long.

A serious study by the Forestry Department and other organisations should be undertaken to determine the creatures sex, age and the possibility that other crocodiles exist there. If only one animal is confirmed, then something should be done to ensure the survival of the species.

Restocking with yearling purebred Siamese crocodile seems to be the only solution. But is the species in Thailand’s crocodile farms purebred? It would seem that the animals are prone to crossbreeding and inbreeding, hence the integrity might be suspect.

The Siamese crocodile in the wild is the most endangered crocodilian species in the world. It is estimated that throughout the countries where they are to be found there are now no more than 200 surviving in their natural habitat. Extreme efforts to save the crocodile in Thailand from total extinction need to be implemented. Even though there are many crocodile farms with thousands of animals in them, the true wild population is the one that counts.

Let us hope that full measures will be taken to ensure that the Siamese crocodile will continue to outlive the dinosaur and not end up like the prehistoric creatures alongside whom they once evolved.

Thailand, with all its natural resources, should be the role model for wildlife conservation in Southeast Asia. All those concerned need to work together to protect, save and regenerate the wildlife and forests so that generations to come can be proud of the Kingdom’s natural heritage.

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