It isn’t often that crowds of people gather to celebrate the intentional release of large, carnivorous animals into their backyards.
Yet that’s exactly what happened several weeks ago on the Philippine island of Luzon, at the site of the country’s first crocodile reintroduction project. Why the support for these toothy reptiles? The reintroduction project has the potential to benefit local communities in a variety of ways.
Crocodiles at Risk
At less than three meters (almost 10 feet) long, the Philippine crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis) is fairly small by crocodile standards, and, contrary to popular belief, poses no threat to humans unless provoked.
Although the crocodiles previously inhabited rivers and lakes across the Philippines, a combination of hunting, habitat loss and pollution has caused the wild population to shrink to about 100 adult crocodiles. The IUCN Red List currently rates the Philippine crocodile as Critically Endangered, and the IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group considers it to be the world’s most threatened crocodile.
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The Mabuwaya Foundation, a Dutch-Filipino conservation organization, which conducted most of the project’s groundwork through the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) and Conservation International (CI) funding, has been working on crocodile conservation in Isabela Province for ten years. In addition to its projects with another small population of crocodiles in the municipality of San Mariano, the Foundation organized the reintroduction project in nearby Divilacan.
Into the Wild
On July 31, 50 captive-bred juvenile crocodiles were released into Dicatian Lake in the Northern Sierra Madre National Park, the largest and most biologically diverse protected area in the Philippines. The lake was deemed a suitable habitat due to previous sightings of crocodiles in the lake (not seen since 2005), and the absence of people living on the lake’s shores.
The crocodiles were born and raised at the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center (PWRCC), run by the national government’s Department of the Environment and Natural Resources. The reptiles were transported to their new home by helicopter. Despite bad weather, a large group of government officials and community members came to watch as the crocodiles submerged themselves in their new home.
Ten crocodiles were fitted with radio transmitters, which will be monitored by the PWRCC and the Mabuwaya Foundation to gain insight on how captive-bred crocodiles adapt to wild conditions and to inform future reintroduction projects.
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More Crocodiles, More Opportunity?
Locals hope that the newly-released crocodiles will attract tourists to the region, which has seen few visitors in the past due to inaccessibility. An observation tower and campsite have already been built next to the lake, and several women have been trained in “homestay” tourism.
Furthermore, the presence of the crocodiles will likely lead to better ecosystem management, which will improve human health and livelihoods. The management plan for a new village sanctuary surrounding the lake will be designed by local villagers themselves; their involvement in the process makes them more likely to obey the plan’s restrictions.
In the San Mariano village sanctuaries, it was found that due to the newly established management practices, ecosystem health improved and communities profited. Water quality improved, the rate of erosion declined and fish stocks increased. For this reason, the Mabuwaya Foundation markets the crocodile as a flagship species whose presence can aid successful wetland management.
The Foundation has also embarked on a communications campaign which includes the distribution of crocodile-themed calendars and posters; presentations in local schools and villages; and the organization of overnight field visits to educate people about the importance of crocodiles to the local ecosystem. These projects aim to challenge misconceptions about the animals and encourage communities to take pride in sharing their home with a rare species that exists nowhere else on Earth.
An Important Partnership
Since 2002, CI has been working with local organizations and communities in the Sierra Madre Mountains on projects ranging from the discovery of new species to the promotion of agroforesty practices.
CI and the CLP’s support of the Mabuwaya Foundation enables and acknowledges the group’s efforts empowering communities to take conservation into their own hands. The expanded interest of local villages in crocodile conservation shows that these initiatives hold promise for both people and the healthy habitats that provide for us all.
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