Growing up on Colombia's Caribbean coast, Gabriel Pacheco began hunting American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) as a young man in the swamps of Cispata Bay. Although crocodile hunting has long been illegal in the region, residents of poor communities often had few options to earn income.
Today, not only is Pacheco protecting the species he once hunted, but through spreading the message of conservation to others, he has been able to expand economic opportunities for his generation and the next.
Building on their detailed knowledge of crocodile habitat, the former hunters locate wild crocodile nests and collect eggs, which are then incubated, hatched and raised in captivity until the animals reach one to one-and-a-half years of age, at which point they are released into the wild.
A Vanishing Species
The mangrove ecosystems of Cispata Bay have long provided innumerable services and resources for local people, including protection from floods, nursery habitat for important fish species and an ample supply of fuelwood. Within the mangrove wetlands, the crocodile is an important umbrella species which helps to sustain the functioning of the ecosystem; among other benefits, crocodiles often eat dead fish, keeping the water clean for the other species that rely on it – including humans.
Ten years ago, biologist and member of the IUCN's Crocodile Specialist Group Giovanni Ulloa Delgado conducted an assessment of crocodile distribution in the region through the Environmental Ministry's national mangrove project. He found that the population was declining largely due to illegal hunting, and met with local hunters to discuss the impact of their actions.
Creating New Livelihoods
Two hunters-turned-conservationists collect crocodile eggs. © Giovanni Ulloa Delgado
Clara Sierra, a biologist for the regional environmental authority (known as CVS) and also a member of the IUCN's Crocodile Specialist Group, describes this initial meeting between the hunters and conservationists as "the first step toward building a relationship of confidence." Although it may seem to be an unlikely alliance, the two groups first came together because of a common interest: both groups wanted to increase the crocodile population.
In order to promote local livelihoods and give the reptiles a fighting chance, Conservation International (CI), CVS, the Environmental Ministry and the Alexander von Humboldt Institute created a capacity-building program in 2004. Pacheco was the first hunter to participate, but the program has since expanded to include 18 hunter-turned-conservationists.
Building on their detailed knowledge of crocodile habitat, the former hunters locate wild crocodile nests and collect eggs, which are then incubated, hatched and raised in captivity until the animals reach one to one-and-a-half years of age, at which point they are released into the wild. By raising the animals in captivity, the program greatly increases their chances of survival to adulthood. So far the program has released over 1,700 crocodiles into the wild.
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Ecotourism has also emerged as a potential source of funding as the wild population increases. CI-Colombia, CVS and the National Service for Education and Learning provided technical assistance, training the former hunters about local flora and fauna so that they can act as tour guides.
Reaching New Audiences
The next generation: a local girl face-to-face with a newborn crocodile.
© Clara Lucia Sierra Diaz
Just as crocodiles are only one important aspect of the mangrove wetland, the crocodile project is but one part of a larger integrated ecosystem management plan, which also includes actions to protect fisheries and reduce the cutting of wood for fuel.
CI-Colombia and CVS are also working to involve schools in conservation efforts; in some cases, the children of the former hunters are helping to educateb their peers about the benefits that crocodile conservation can provide for both ecosystems and livelihoods.
The support of CI-Colombia has been vital to the initiative, as it has helped to enhance the visibility of the project on both the national and international level.
Pacheco voices his hope that the crocodile project, which has transformed his own life, will continue to expand and impact others.