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The Unloved Ones – Why Crocodilians Deserve Love Too
Crocodilians – One of the last Archosaurs
There are only 23 species left in the world today, the last of a large and diverse group that can trace their origins back some 250 million years. Tropical lands in what is known as the New and Old World have crocodiles in many shapes and forms, but all these species are endangered and vulnerable to extinction. Crocodiles are one of the main branches of the Reptile class called Archosauria, sometimes referred to as “ruling predators” because of these creatures’ dominance of terrestrial habitats during the Mesozoic era. As one of the main branches of the Archosauria family tree, crocodyliforms (a term used to refer to all types of crocodiles, alligators, caimans and gharials), share a common ancestor with flying reptiles and dinosaurs. The only remaining members of the Archosaur family alive today are birds.
Alligators, Crocodiles, Gharials and Caimans
Of the twenty-three extant genera, only thirteen are true crocodiles, the other members of this group being either the wider alligators, the caimans (restricted to the New World) and the narrow-faced gharials (restricted to the old). Although a number of individual species have wide ranges all species are covered by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, although some species are more endangered than others go.
The problem is, these creatures don’t have many friends among humans. All these animals even some smaller species like the Broad-nosed crocodile (Osteolaemus tetrapis) of central and western Africa, which rarely exceed six feet in length are capable of causing serious injuries. Attacks on children are so rare that there have been reports of death. Large crocodiles such as the American Alligator (Alligator missipiensis) have been known to attack humans, and many cats and dogs are eaten by these fish in Florida each year. However, humans have had a devastating impact on alligator populations in the past. Between 1880 and 1894, it is estimated that 2.25 million were killed in the wild, mostly for their valuable skins.
The largest species of true crocodiles which can exceed a length of twelve feet or more are all known to be man-eaters. Saltwater or Estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is responsible for the number of fatal attacks each year. Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) has a reputation, like the mugger crocodile of Asia – Crocodylus palustris. There are often conflicts of interest between local fishermen and villagers and a crocodile population, especially since human settlements have moved into marshy areas as the human population grows. Crocodiles are the ones who end up killing, humans and these high predators do not mix well.
The skin from the underside of many species of crocodiles has been sought after for thousands of years as it makes for a very soft and luxurious leather. Crocodiles are hunted for sport, and large numbers of domestic animals are hunted for the meat trade. It has been estimated that over one million baby pigs are exported from South America every year for the meat trade. Pollution has affected the crocodile population as it has lost good habitat. The Indian gharial is perhaps the rarest of all crocodiles, with only half a dozen wild specimens remaining. Many of the animals that have grown up have died from disease, perhaps toxic chemicals due to river pollution and the number of people born in the forest in India has decreased greatly. The gharial is now listed as “critically endangered” under CITES. These giant fish eaters were nearly extinct in the wild in the 1970s but a captive breeding and release program brought this species back from the brink of extinction. However, efforts to reintroduce individuals into the wild have been hampered by the lack of suitable habitat for gharials. There are no easy release points.
Unfortunately, many people find it difficult to love these monsters, with their terrifying and in many cases deserving reputations for being human. However, it’s not just cute and cuddly pandas that need our protection. Indeed, it can be argued that the money spent on trying to maintain panda populations could be better spent on trying to protect crocodile species around the world.
Why crocodiles on Pandas
Crocodiles are certainly not cute, hairless mammals but they play a more important role in food chains than the Giant Panda of China for example. The American alligator when fully grown eats many rodents and thus helps keep insect numbers down. The American Alligator burrows into pools of water in the Florida swampland and these “Alligator Holes” provide water during droughts in the area. These sites can support many native plants and animals, all of which depend on older alligators to dig the lakes in the first place.
All members of the Crocodyliformes are protected by CITES regulations. For some species, trading in any products made from animals, bones, skin, meat is prohibited. Population numbers are too small to make any trade a real threat to the survival of the species. Some crocodile products can be traded but this is done under strict CITES supervision.
Visit schools to learn about Crocodile Conservation
When visiting schools working with young students from five years and up we use the example of crocodiles to explain destruction. We distinguish crocodiles with other reptilian members of Archosauria the dinosaurs, and we try to overcome the need to protect all animals and their habitats as best we can. When asked to name an animal that is in danger of being destroyed because of the activities of our species, students usually call mammals as an example. However, we do our best to help convince the scientists of the future that even the fragile monsters we don’t love like crocodiles need our protection too.
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