DNA Testing Gives Hope for Endangered Siamese Crocodiles

Crocodile 075817840 at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Cen­ter found out yesterday by DNA test that she is a purebred Siamese crocodile, a species classified as “crit­ically endangered.”

Since lineage means nothing to crocodiles, her results were more mean­­ingful to Fauna and Flora In­ter­national, the Forestry Admin­istration and Wildlife Alliance, which collected DNA and tissue samples from 69 crocodiles at the rescue center in February and sent them to Bang­kok’s Kasetsart Uni­versity for testing.

During a demonstration yesterday at the rescue center, the newly class­ified crocodile hissed and fought with handlers who first had to slip a lasso around the top of her up­per jaw, then drag her out of her cage where a second handler grab­bed her tail to immobilize her further so that a third handler could put a wet rag over her eyes and finally push her jaws closed to be sealed with tape, allowing the microchip im­planted at the time the samples were taken to be scanned for identification.

“And we had to do that to each crocodile,” said Adam Starr, director of the FFI Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Program, after the team subdued and taped the crocodile’s jaws and eyes.

The crocodile is one of the 35 that were determined to be pure Siam­ese crocodiles, a species thought to have only a population of 250 in the wild and which the International Union for the Conservation of Na­ture listed as “effectively extinct in the wild” until 2000.

Mr Starr said the testing took place at the rescue center because the lineage of captive crocodiles is often unknown, as farmed animals in Cambodia are interbred to have the soft, prized skin of the Siamese crocodile with the size of another crocodile species, usually the saltwater crocodile, though Cuban crocodiles have also been known to be used.

“This is the first time in Cambodia that a population of crocodiles is determined as hybrid or purebred,” Mr Starr said.

He added the test was necessary because hybrids can take on characteristics from both species making it impossible to distinguish them by sight alone.

Mr Starr said tests revealed that six adults could be compatible for breeding and 29 hatchlings may be suitable to be released, adding it takes about 15 years for Siamese crocodiles to reach sexual maturity, which leaves them with long periods of vulnerability, especially after hatching.

Not all hatchlings will survive.

“They have 15 years of hazards to avoid,” said Mr Starr, adding popular dangers include poaching and loss of habitat from wetlands being converted to farmlands and hydro dam development in the country.

Nhek Ratanapech, director of rescue center and national coordinator of the crocodile program, said yesterday at the center that the results will enable the organizations to start a captivity breeding program and that the next step is to separate the crocodiles, which have been present at the center since its start in 1995.

He added 40 to 50 crocodiles are hatched at the center every year and that he hopes the breeding of the Siamese will go well.

Despite the high number of hatchlings, “the rate of survival here is very small,” Mr Ratanapech said.

These results will lay the foundation for long-term breeding and recovery for the species, he added.

“Thirty-five out of 60 is great,” Mr Ratanapech said.” I was very surprised, I thought we had some but not so many.”

 

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