As Chinese communities throughout the world celebrate the Year of the Dragon, China’s true dragon — the Chinese alligator — teeters on the brink of extinction, with fewer than 150 remaining in the wild, according to a report released today by the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Yet biologists believe that the species can stage a comeback if given the opportunity.
Known locally as Tu Long, or “muddy dragon,” the remaining populations of these timid reptiles are relegated to just a few village ponds in heavily populated southeastern Anhui Province, the report says. Although the alligators technically live in a wildlife reserve, very little has been done to safeguard their habitat. Hunting and the use of agricultural pesticides have also contributed to their decline.
“Presently, the Chinese alligator is critically endangered and, if present trends continue, it will become the first species of crocodilian to become extinct in the wild within historical times,” said Dr. John Thorbjarnarson, a WCS conservation biologist and an authority on the world’s 23 crocodilian species. “Losing the Chinese alligator would be an ironic fate for an animal with such a rich, cultural significance in China.”
Celebrated every 12 years, the Year of the Dragon is considered to be particularly prosperous since dragons symbolize authority, courage and good fortune among Asians. The year 2000 is even more auspicious because it is also a "golden dragon" year, which occurs once every 60 years.
Though the mission is daunting, Thorbjarnarson believes that populations of wild Chinese alligators can be restored if enough suitable habitat is set aside for the species. One plan that the report discusses involves bolstering existing populations through habitat improvements, while breeding alligators in captivity and reintroducing them into suitable areas. Some 5,000 Chinese alligators currently exist in captivity in China.
“Most crocodilians are hard-wired to repopulate rather quickly if given the chance,” said Thorbjarnarson, noting successful restorations in India, Nepal, and Venezuela. “The key is to protect their habitat. In terms of captive breeding, the Chinese have taken the conservation of the alligator very seriously, but habitat protection has not really been addressed.”
The report recommends an inventory of all suitable habitats within Anhui Province where Chinese alligators and other species could be re-established as part of an overall plan for wetlands conservation. There are several other provinces where alligators once occurred that need to looked at as well, said Thorbjarnarson.
One of just two alligator species in the world, Chinese alligators are believed to have diverged from their American counterparts at least 20 million years ago. They reach lengths of about six feet — only half the size of American alligators — and feed on small fish, snails, crayfish. Among crocodilians, the Chinese alligator is the most endangered, followed by the Philippine, Siamese, Cuban and Orinoco crocodiles. WCS is currently working to protect all five species in the wild.
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