In this section is a bit more information for those interested in the ‘nitty gritty’ of conserving crocodilians.
Today, not all crocodile and alligator species are endangered. Some are doing extremely well in fact. However, when a crocodile population has been decimated, action needs to be taken to make sure that the population bounces back to decent numbers. Even the species that are doing well need to be managed carefully, since some species can become a problem for local people, their pets and livestock.
In both situations, ‘conservation’ today means managing crocodile populations to ensure there is a balance between the need to have a healthy crocodile population and the needs for the local people to be safe.
Management of crocodiles can include protective laws that prevent the intentional killing or harming of the animals, establishing national parks to protect the habitat of native wildlife and plants, a program to remove ‘problem’ crocodiles before they can kill humans, a program to educate local people about how to live with crocodiles to minimise conflicts, providing these people with facilities that help reduce the need for them to be in close proximity to crocodiles, protecting nesting areas of crocodiles, rearing young crocs in captivity to be released into protected habitat – it can be a very complex system.
During the 1900s, the main threat to crocodilians around the world was the unregulated hunting of crocs for their valuable skins. This decimated some populations, although not all species were affected (some of the smaller species were just not economically worth hunting).
Slowly during this same period, mankind was increasing in numbers and expanding its impact on the planet.
Today, the main threat to crocodilians in the wild (and to most wildlife and plants) is the destruction of habitat.
This includes the list of causes on the previous page – all the things that we’re doing that impact the environment.
The bushmeat trade in west Africa is having a detrimental effect on dwarf crocodiles, and in areas of Asia, Siamese crocodiles are still being captured, and eventually sold illegally to crocodile farms in the country.
There will always be occasional and localised threats to wildlife, but by far the major concern is the degradation of wetland habitats across the world.
Crocodilians need somewhere to live (wetland habitat), somewhere to hide (young crocs especially need overhanging vegetation to retreat from predators), food to eat (bugs, amphibians and small fish when young, then larger and larger animals as the croc grows), somewhere to nest for the females (either sand banks or vegetation raised above potential flood waters to safeguard the eggs), places to move into as they grow and find their own territories, and predators to help control their numbers (crocs lay lots of eggs since most of the young will die). Their needs change as they grow larger, but also throughout the year – summer vs winter, rainy season vs dry season for example. Species in areas subject to dry seasons or excessively cooler winters will excavate ‘dens’ or ‘burrows’, so they need areas adjacent to the water that allows them to dig these burrows. The soil needs to be able to support the burrows without collapsing, but not be so hard that the crocs can’t dig into it. Movement along rivers between nesting and basking areas, or overland migrations to more permanent water bodies are just two situations where crocodilians require unobstructed access to large areas of habitat, both aquatic and terrestrial.
Water levels and flow are important factors for crocs to regulate their body temperature, drink, mate, escape from threats, ambush their prey, catch fish, and establish territories.
If this is the case for one species in a given area, you can see how complex ecosystems are with their multitude of animal, plant and insect species – all interacting and relying in some way on other species. This is the biodiversity that you hear about – the interconnected ecosystems that make up the planet and the wildlife, plants and bugs that are the critical components that keep everything in balance.
The main thing humans need to do is protect the world’s biodiversity.
So when you hear of logging affecting crocodilians, it isn’t because crocs live in the trees…it’s because they may rely on vegetation for nesting areas and shade or protective cover, the forest helped control the flow of rainwater into the river and without this protection the water is disturbed and often polluted by this increased run-off – especially in agricultural areas. Many of the animals that crocs need to eat may also rely on the forests, and once that’s gone, they also move away – decreasing the availability of food for the crocs. Often more and more people will move or work within the area, causing a constant disturbance, conflicts with the people, and the crocs will usually move away into other areas. If this happens across the range of a species, it’s what we called ‘fragmentation’, where you end up with a species persisting in small pockets of habitat. These fragmented populations can remain for years, but rarely grow in numbers and usually slowly die off.
These are just some of the impacts.
Now these impacts are being felt by us as well. As we destroy ecosystems across the world, the planet’s ability to absorb the changes we’re making decreases and we start to see the effects.
The solution is simple, just not easy: humans need to use the Earth’s natural resources in a sustainable manner.
This is key to a healthy future for the planet – people, wildlife and plants. Chopping down trees is not the problem. Using palm oil isn’t the problem. Making handbags out of crocodiles isn’t the problem, either. We just need to do these things using models that are proven to be sustainable. Elsewhere you can read our palm oil policy.
For the public, we can look for logos on products that indicate it comes from a sustainable source. These logos are on many products, from foods to furniture, cosmetics even energy suppliers who produce electricity from wind or solar power.
Specifically to crocodilians:
In some areas, crocodile management programs have allowed croc populations to increase significantly. A conservation success story, this includes saltwater and freshwater crocodiles in Australia, American alligators in the south-east of the USA, Nile crocodiles in southern Africa, crocs in New Guinea, mugger crocs in India. The problem is that we now have more people living in those areas, along with an increasing crocodile population…something needs to give.
Crocodile management is all about finding the balance between a healthy crocodilian population and allowing people to also live safely in the same areas.
Often, it means giving crocodiles a value to the local people and communities. This is often achieved through tourism, and works well. Travellers to Australia’s north or the south-eastern states of the USA (especially Florida) often want to see crocodiles or alligators in the wild. The tourism impact from the resident crocodilians in these areas is significant! The local people come to rely on the wild crocodiles for businesses and the local economy. It also means the entire ecosystem is maintained in relatively good order to ensure that the visitors get to see nature in all its beauty.
In some cases, it also means crocodile or alligator farms. This seeming contradiction has in fact played a crucial role in conservation for some species. Farming seeks to provide legal products to an acknowledged market, and do it reliably and sustainably. Crocodilians have acted as the ‘poster children’ for sustainable use schemes since the early 1980s. When the first large-scale croc farms were being established in Australia, USA, Zimbabwe, New guinea and other countries, they were designed to work as an integral part of the management of the local crocodile populations. They were the product of science and research, conservation and business/trade coming together to sustainably manage the crocs. This is a crucial mix, each industry keeping the others in check for the overall good of the system.
Here’s a good croc farming model in a nutshell:
You can see that under this model, crocodile farming never reduces the number of crocs in the wild: quite the reverse in fact! This model is referred to as ‘ranching’.
Another benefit is that in order to collect eggs, there needs to be a breeding population of crocodiles, which also means the habitat needs to be protected. In other words, crocodile farming can benefit the ecosystem as a whole, since the breeding croc population requires suitable habitat that includes prey species, and even predator species. Farming can be a win-win situation.
However, not all species are suitable for farming, and not all countries implement farming models up to the expected standard. The smaller species are not able to be farmed economically. For these, more traditional conservation models work best. The same applies to some of the critically endangered species.
In some countries, the crocodile farming industry is essentially corrupt and run for business reasons only. Even within some of these countries, there are farms more interested in operating with conservation outcomes in mind, it is just made more difficult for them by the wider system of their country.
In a few regions (mainly within west African markets), products are made from crocodile skins without regard for conservation and outside of any farming system. These illegal products are criminal and wholly detrimental to the crocodiles.
How would you tell the difference? Easy – those really expensive alligator or crocodile skin products sold in fashion stores are from properly licensed and controlled programs (and come with the certificates to prove it). Cheap bags bought in village markets are illegal, poor quality and should be avoided to stop any demand for them.
So, are we in support of crocodile farms? We have no ties to any crocodile farms. But we recognise the conservation value that the well-respected farms provide, along with the expertise of some of the staff at these facilities – people we know that contribute more than almost anyone else does to crocodile conservation.
We also recognise that crocodile skin products will never be popular with everyone. We just think it is responsible to educate people as to why there are farms, what they aim to achieve, and the benefits they provide to crocodiles so that people can make a properly informed decision about the subject.
Don’t feel powerless to help crocodilians if you live in a country like England, with no native crocodiles: there is still plenty you can do to help:
Wider environmental concerns. Understanding the broader picture will help you decide what changes you can make to help the planet. Some of these links may give you future career ideas, too!
Crocodile Conservation Information