Since time immemorial, the Siamese crocodile has paddled through the wetlands and waterways of Southeast Asia. A stocky, freshwater crocodile depicted on the walls of the Angkor temple complex, the reptile was a staple of the region’s ecosystem.
But thanks to poaching and the destruction of its habitat, the Siamese crocodile’s number has dwindled since the 1950s to an estimated 250 adults surviving in the wild today. In fact, the animal was declared “effectively extinct in the wild” in a 1992 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The dire situation, however, has prompted conservationists to set a captive breeding program in motion to possibly reverse the Siamese crocodile’s rapid decline.
Taking blood and skin samples from 69 captive crocodiles at Takeo province’s Phnom Tamao Zoological Garden and Wildlife Rescue Center, workers with Fauna and Flora International and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries hope to identity any remaining purebred Siamese crocodile and begin breeding them.
“We don’t know if they are Siamese crocodiles or hybrid crocodiles,” Adam Starr, manager of the Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Program with the FFI, said of the crocodiles housed at the zoo.
Those found to be Siamese will be isolated and matched with a mate, Starr said. If the animals breed successfully, the offspring will be released into the wild after two years. The DNA samples, collected last week, will be sent to Kasetsart University in Bangkok for analysis, the results known likely sometime in March.
Starr said farmers often sought after the Siamese crocodile for its valuable hide but would breed the animal with salt-water crocodiles, which grow faster and larger than the 3.5-meter-long freshwater crocodile.
Nhek Ratanapich, the director of Phnom Tamao, said he is confidant officials will find a few Siamese crocodiles among the ones at the zoo, which were either donated from farmers or confiscated from illegal wildlife traders. He also called upon locals to do their part:
“This species is extinct in some parts of Southeast Asia. Cambodia is the last stronghold. We have the responsibility to continue this species.”