We stand looking over a chin high concrete wall, at a pond covered in thick green duckweed and algae, flecked with water hyacinth, the noon sun beating down on our necks. “Grandpa, grandpa”, Ratt calls softly. The pond remains dead. He repeats the call. A clump of hyacinth begins to drift slowly across the water surface but there is no wind or breeze. “Grandpa”. The hyacinth slowly changes direction and the green algae parts, as slow as treacle off a spoon, and we’re transported straight back to the primordial swamps through the eyes of our first Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis).
So what’s so special about Siamese crocodiles? Well to begin with they were only rediscovered in the wild in Cambodia in 2000 during an expedition into the Cardamon Mountains. There are just around 250 left in the wild and so they are on the IUCN critically endangered list. They used to occur throughout South East Asia but due to hunting for skins and rapid habitat loss are now only found in the remotest parts of the Cambodian Cardamon mountains. The larger salt water crocodile has already gone extinct in this region.
“Crocodiles can be trained to come when called,” Ratt tells us, “so we only name our breeders and never those we’re going to release because it could help poachers catch them.” The crocodile’s ability to hear Ratt’s soft call under water just increases our respect for them. The Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Programme was set up in 2000 by the Cambodian Forestry Administration and Fauna and Flora International (FFI) –part of which is this ex situ breeding programme. Currently at Phnom Tamao there are three females of breeding age but only one male big enough to take them on! The project really requires another big male but they have to wait in the hope that a chance arrival of a rescued croc will be a big pure bred male as, for obvious reasons, wild ones can’t be collected. We learn early on that many rescued crocodiles are usually hybrids so of no use to the programme.
Photos: Breeding program enclosures and ponds. The water is low having been drained for yesterday’s health checks.
A waiting game seems the best way to describe crocodile breeding where everything is slow.They take 15 years to reach breeding age, three months to hatch and another three years before they are big enough to be released. This all means long term logistical planning such as enough enclosures to house growing crocodiles, who only like other crocs from their own clutch, as well as feeding them and dealing with aggressive new arrivals. They live on a diet of live fish when small and dead chickens as they get bigger.
Once old enough the crocodiles are given a health check by the vet and taken to the Cardamon mountains for release into the wild. The day before we arrived this had just taken place with eleven deemed suitable for release next month.When stressed the crocodiles won’t eat so after yesterday’s health check which involved draining the ponds, capturing, weighing and examining each crocodile, Ratt tells us they won’t eat for up to two days now –another reason all handling is kept to a minimum.
Ratt shows us this year’s three month old hatchlings, seven of which are alive from a clutch of ten. Once the female lays her eggs they are removed as the pens have concrete floors so they can’t be incubated, and are hatched separately in sand at a temperature that ensures a mix of male and female crocs hatch (a crocodiles sex is dependent upon the temperature at which the egg is incubated). Ratt, who had to leave school early to support his family, has been working at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center for 13 years. He looks after the crocodiles and is hoping to accompany his charges to the release site this time round.
So what’s the future for the crocodiles? Money for radio trackers is needed to monitor what happens to each individual post release and hopefully some big males of breeding age will come into the centre. In the meantime, the slow work of breeding, releasing and watching crocs grow will continue. We say our farewells as Grandpa watches unmoving from his green pond –the true master of the art of patience.
We later met up with Joey Rose, an intern who previously worked at Sydney Zoo, and is helping with the project’s quality control. He told us tales gleaned from chats with vets of crocodiles’ incredible powers to live through staggering levels of septicaemia and organ illnesses – presumably due to their slow metabolism.
While at the centre we had a fleeting catch up with Nick Marx, Director of Wildlife Alliance’s Rescue and Care Programs, fresh from giving a possibly pregnant elephant her first ultrasound. He used to work in the UK with tigers, studied an MSc at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology and has been at the centre for over six years. His main work has involved managing and improving the centre’s image and overseeing a number of release programs, such as the release of gibbons into the Angkor Archaeological Park, as well as rescuing problem or injured elephants –one of which wears a prosthetic foot designed by Nick. The centre itself is run in a joint partnership between the Cambodian government and Wildlife Alliance. Both of which enable other independent NGOs such as Free the Bears and FFI to have projects on site.
We both thought the centre was great and worth a visit if you’re in Phnom Penh. The animals are all rescued and come from various backgrounds. For example, from markets, some were caught in traps and snares, some were abandoned pets that were bought as babies when small and cute and are now unwanted, the store rooms of restaurants and even from farms. They arrive at the centre in a range of poor physical and mental conditions and with varying levels of habituation to humans. Those that can be, are released in various protected areas while others are brought back to a good state of health and remain in the centre.
Natasha and Lucy
Please take a look at the following websites for more information and again if you have any questions or comments please feel free to ask.