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Saving the Philippine crocodile

The rarest crocodile species in the world
Philippine crocodile

The efforts to save the Philippine crocodile, also known as Mindoro crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis)—the rarest and the most threatened crocodile species in the world—are slowly paying off and offering renewed hope for this critically endangered species.

Commonly called buwaya, there are only around 100 Philippine adult crocodiles left in the wild with small populations in southwestern Mindanao and northern Luzon.

Different species

However, don’t mistake the Philippine crocodile from the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus).

Philippine crocodiles are freshwater crocodiles. They can grow to a maximum of 3 meters long. They live in freshwater rivers and creeks, and in small lakes, ponds and marshes. They have enlarged scales in the neck.

A saltwater crocodile can grow up to 6 meters long. They live in mangroves, coastal waters, large rivers and lakes.  And have small scales in the neck, said Marites Gatan-Balbas, COO of Mabuwaya Foundation Inc.

Saving crocodiles

The saltwater crocodile is listed globally under the category of “least concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

However, in the Philippines, like the Philippine crocodile, the saltwater crocodile is considered critically endangered because of its declining population in the wild.

As it is allowed to be traded under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna, crocodile farming began in 1987 with the establishment of the Palawan Crocodile Farm with the Philippine government as the main proponent.

It is with the hope that with the breeding, both species of crocodiles could be released into the wild later in order to help repopulate known crocodile habitats.

Along with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and its Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB), which oversees the operation of the Palawan Crocodile Farm, at the forefront of the effort to conserve the Philippine crocodile are two nongovernment organizations—the Mabuwaya Foundation Inc. and the Crocodylus Porosus Philippines Inc. (CPPI).

Both the Mabuwaya Foundation and CPPI are into research, conservation work, communication, education and public awareness campaigns about crocodiles.

Mabuwaya Foundation

Founded in 2003 by Dutch scientists and Filipino conservationists, Mabuwaya has been involved in Philippine crocodile research and conservation after a baby crocodile was turned over by a fisherman in San Mariano, Isabela, narrated Gatan-Balbas.

Mabuwaya is also working for the conservation of other threatened species.

It is helping local governments in declaring local conservation areas for flying foxes, Isabela oriole, Philippine duck, freshwater fish and sea turtles in the provinces of Cagayan and Isabela, and is assisting them develop management plans for each LCA.

It is also implementing various programs to help protect and conserve the environment.

“We support reforestation and agroforestry development and we assist indigenous communities in Isabela and Cagayan provinces with sustainable green livelihood programs,” Gatan-Balbas said.

Why save Philippine crocodile?

Asked why the need to save the Philippine crocodile, Gatan-Balbas gave a number of reasons. But easily, she said: “The Philippine crocodile can only be found in the Philippines and that is something to be proud of.”

“The Philippine crocodile is as much part of our natural and cultural heritage as the Philippine Eagle, or other endemic species. The Philippines has a responsibility to conserve all its endemic species, and has signed international treaties to that effect,“ she added.

Philippine crocodile plays an important role in Philippine indigenous cultures, in folk stories and in literature.

“Even [National Hero] Jose Rizal has written about the Philippine crocodile,” she said.

Working with LGUs

As a key predator at the top of the food chain, the Philippine crocodile eats a wide range of prey.

“It eats the weak fish so it keeps the fish population healthy. It eats pests, such as rats and golden apple snail [kuhol] so it actually helps farmers in controlling pests in rice fields,” Gatan-Balbas said, adding that the species is helping save wetland environments.

The Mabuwaya Foundation is working with various LGUs to protect and conserve the Philippine crocodile with the hope of making the unique species a tourist attraction.

In San Mariano, Isabela, a total of eight Philippine crocodile sanctuaries were successfully set up.

While in Maconacon, Isabela, the group helped the LGU put up a saltwater crocodile sanctuary, the first in the Philippines.

“LGU Divilacan [in Isabela] also declared Dicatian Lake as a Philippine crocodile sanctuary,” Gatan-Balbas said.

Head-start program

The foundation has been implementing a so-called head-start program for the Philippine crocodile.

Every year, during the breeding season from March to August, community wardens, or Bantay Sanktuwaryo, search crocodile nests. Once located, they protect and guard the nest from human intrusion and predators.

Once the eggs are hatched, the baby crocodiles are brought to the Municipal Philippine Crocodile Rearing Station in San Mariano, where they are raised under protective condition for two years before they are released back into the wild.

“This helps them survive the critical first two years, when normally about 95 percent of them would die in the wild as a result of predation, lack of food and strong water currents. In the rearing station, 70 percent of them survive, so head-starting decreases infant crocodile mortality drastically,” Gatan-Balbas said.

Since the head-starting program of Mabuwaya started in 2007, more than 150 juvenile crocodiles have been released into the wild.

Unfortunately, she said, many of the released crocodiles have not survived to adult reproductive age.

Captive breeding

Mabuwaya Foundation is planning to start captive breeding soon.

“We are not yet into captive breeding, but we have two crocodiles [male and female] with disabilities that we cannot release back into the wild because they may not be able to survive,” Gatan-Balbas said.

However, she said they are establishing a Philippine Crocodile Conservation Center to breed them.

The facility will also serve as a one-stop shop for tourists who would like to see Philippine crocodiles.

Crocodylus Porosus

Established in 2000, CPPI was formed by six commercial crocodile farms in the Philippines. It has been working with government agencies in conserving the two species of crocodiles in the country.

Of the six commercial crocodile farm-members of CPPI, two are into captive-breeding the Philippine crocodile, said Rainier I. Manalo, marine biologist and program head for crocodile research at CPPI told the BusinessMirror via Zoom on April 27.

Through the CPPI, 36 progenies of the Philippine crocodile were released in the Paghungawan Marsh on Siargao Island in March 2013. Another 29 were released on the same area in June 2017.

Some of the crocodiles that were released in 2013 are now starting to breed, said Manalo, one of the country’s leading researchers on the Philippine crocodile.

Some years back, the discovery of crocodile nests and eggs revealed the good news: that the progenies of the first batch of Philippine crocodile bred in captivity and released on the island are able to adapt to the harsh conditions and are now breeding.

Not applicable to all wildlife species

During the same Zoom meeting, Teri Aquino, a consultant at CPPI and a member of the Crocodile Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, said captive breeding only works with some wildlife species.

“Not a lot of wildlife species flourish in captivity,” Aquino said.

“We are fortunate that the crocodile is amendable to captive breeding. [This is good only] as long as you can provide enough space, the right ratio of water and dryland, and of shelter so they wouldn’t get stressed. Over the years, we have learned what is amenable to them and what is not,” she said.

A boost to conservation

Among crocodiles, commercial farms that are into ex-situ breeding helps in-situ conservation, Aquino said.

“In crocodiles, even commercial farming feeds into in-situ conservation. This is a good strategy for crocodile conservation globally. Anywhere you go, like in Australia, Thailand, Indonesia, the crocodile farmers set aside funds for the conservation of crocodiles of their country,” she said.

According to Aquino, crocodile farmers are the biggest source of funds for conservation in most countries.

Asean treasures

Theresa Mundita S. Lim, executive director of the Asean Centre for Biodiversity, said Asean treasures like the Philippine crocodile, and the Crocodylus siamensis common to Thailand and other neighboring countries, such as Cambodia, Lao, Myanmar, need to be protected.

“They are Asean endemics. They are important because they have limited distribution,” Lim, a former DENR-BMB director told the BusinessMirror via Messenger on April 24.

Asked on the prospect of commercial farming Philippine crocodile, like its saltwater cousins, Lim said they are native to the Philippines. The first option to take in conserving them must be to protect them in their natural habitat and to make sure that there is also good genetic diversity in the wild.

“Farming can be a complementary action if there are threats to their natural habitat that cannot be immediately addressed, such as destruction of the wetland areas and the breeding grounds or heavy poaching,” she said.

“I mentioned complementary, because the propagation of the Philippine crocodile will not be an effective conservation measure on its own. There must be parallel activities that will protect and restore their habitat so that they can eventually be reintroduced and once again perform their ecological function in the natural environment,” Lim said.

The Philippines remains one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots because of the rapid rate of biodiversity loss due to habitat loss.

Other than that, hunting in the wild, such as that of crocodiles, continues to drive this already critically endangered species to the brink of extinction. Saving them will take more than successful captive breeding. Keeping their habitats safe and intact as well is a must.

Image courtesy of Jake B. Binaday/CPPI
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