A recent survey confirms that a marsh in the country’s remote southwest contains the world’s largest concentration of an elusive, relatively gentle and critically endangered crocodile.
A survey team from the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and NGO Fauna and Flora International found evidence of up to 50 Siamese crocodiles living in a 1,000-hectare marsh in Veal Veng district in the Central Cardamom Mountains of Pursat province. The report urges swift action to protect the crocodile, an indicator of the health of the Cardamoms region, which is a still largely pristine area identified as an ecological hotspot by international experts.
“This is the largest population in the wild in the whole world,” said Chheang Dany, project coordinator for crocodile preservation at the fisheries department. “We want to show the world that the crocodile is high in abundance here.”
Siamese crocodiles may also be relatively common in the Cardamoms’ rivers, bringing the total population to 100 or more, Chheang Dany said.
A team of local and international observers waded through the marsh for several days last year, searching for nests, tracks, dung and the crocodile itself. At night their powerful spotlights bounced off the crocodile’s highly reflective retinas.
They collected and analyzed the dung, finding that the crocodile ate almost everything: Fish, frogs, snakes, birds, insects and even small mammals. The species is distinguished by four large scales behind the head; it also has a soft underbelly that makes it prized by poachers. It can live for 100 years or more, Chheang Dany said.
The team also found evidence of six threatened or near-threatened mammals in the area, including pilated gibbons and black bears. Still relatively isolated, the marsh is “almost unique among Asia’s wetlands” in containing few imported species or other negative effects from human interference, the study says.
Other researchers on the team found that local hill tribe villagers usually live in harmony with the crocodiles, not fearing them but believing that it is bad luck to kill them. The local commune chief even claimed he could spiritually summon crocodiles, the survey team reported.
Once common throughout Southeast Asia, the crocodiles have been pushed to the brink of extinction by hunting and development. They have survived in Veal Veng largely because the area’s remoteness makes it difficult to sell skins, the study found.
But the crocodile’s marsh may suffer if more villagers drain it for wet rice cultivation, the researchers report.
The marsh is also threatened by waste from makeshift factories processing yellow vine, an ingredient in cosmetics and medicines. The crocodiles themselves may suffer occasional harm at the hands of villagers angry at the reptiles for destroying their fishing nets.
Finally, the researchers believe that development may hurt the crocodiles as much as it helps the villagers. Improving roads may make it easier for poachers to come in or for villagers to sell skins. Planned schools or clinics may encourage more people to move into the area, straining natural resources. Some government and NGO programs in the area are not taking account of the effects of development on diversity, the researchers say.
The Cardamoms are currently parceled out as concessions to logging companies, but the government has effectively nullified the contracts, saying the steep slopes of the mountains prevent sustainable logging.
A subdecree to formally declare the 400,000-hectare Central Cardamoms a protected area will soon be sent to an interministerial committee, Chheang Dany said.
Meanwhile, the NGO Conservation International has been assisting government rangers in the area, often enlisting former hunters or demobilized soldiers.
Conservation efforts at Veal Veng marsh are still being formulated, Chheang Dany said. One option is to use the surveys to map out sensitive areas where farming would be restricted, and then to aid farmers who plant in approved areas.
Another would be to relocate the 2,000 villagers who live near the marsh to an area where they would be closer to roads, schools and other development. The options will be discussed with development agencies and villagers before a workshop on the marsh, which is tentatively planned for September, Chheang Dany said.