Most people would be terrified of entering waters with crocodiles, but not Sao Chan. Like others living in this jungle village, deep inside southwestern Cambodia’s remote Cardamom Mountains, the 73-year-old farmer says the Siamese crocodiles found in the waterways here may look ferocious, but they should not be feared. “If we come close to them, they just run away,” Chan says.
He’s right. There have been extremely few reported attacks by Siamese crocodiles on humans in the world, and reportedly none anywhere in Cambodia. Instead, it’s the crocodiles that have every reason to fear people. Once common throughout Southeast Asia, the notoriously shy Siamese crocodile, which can grow up to 10 feet long, was for decades hunted for its skin and meat to such an extent that, in the early 1990s, the species was thought to be extinct in the wild. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as critically endangered.
Some of them survived in the Cardamoms, however, where scattered populations of the reptiles, likely numbering fewer than 200 individuals in total, were rediscovered at the turn of the millennium. Since then, local people have conducted regular patrols to protect them from poachers and other threats. “We believe the crocodiles are sacred,” says Chan, a lead ranger in his area.