Visitors to the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park have a unique opportunity to experience the mystery and grace of six different crocodilian species. The Park has two American alligator ambassadors: Myakka and Bayou. They are part of the Wildlife Education Department and can be seen walking on a leash, seeking out warm basking areas. These animals are excellent ambassadors for wildlife as they give our guests a chance to see them up close and learn about the important roles they play in the ecosystem.
At the Zoo, you’ll discover African dwarf crocodiles, Johnston’s crocodiles (or Australian freshwater crocs), slender-snouted crocodiles, and gharials, all in Lost Forest. Keepers work diligently and patiently with these intelligent animals, training them to respond to various commands that make everyone’s life safer and less stressful.
In the Zoo’s new Reptile Walk, you’ll find two female Chinese alligators, a critically endangered species. The Zoo expects to become a breeding facility for this most endangered of all crocodilian species and we are awaiting a breeding recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquarium's Species Survival Program.
The Zoo’s reptile keepers share information about the dwarf crocodile during training presentations for guests. The training methods are all based on positive reinforcement, rewarding desired behavior like responding to their name, touching a target, and coming out of the water, and simply ignoring undesirable behavior. The crocs catch on quickly to commands, which are then used to separate the animals, give injections, and safely get them into a crate when necessary. Don’t let the dwarf name fool you—these crocs are still astonishingly strong, even at a “dwarfed” length of 6 feet (3 meters), so safety remains a priority.
We send our reptile keepers to Crocodilian Biology and Management school in Florida as part of their training to ensure they have the most up-to-date information available.
Slender-snouted crocs, located next to the Zoo’s pygmy hippos, are much larger than the dwarf variety, and the females in the enclosure each respond to their own color-coded target (yes, they see in color!) on the end of a pole. Their keeper goes into the exhibit, stands on the beach, calls one of the crocs by name, and smacks the colored target on the surface of the water (a cue that crocodilians easily respond to). Soon, a croc silently glides to the surface and lunges out of the water to capture its prey—a tasty fish. Keepers say these animals are so intelligent that they have to change up the routine daily. The crocs seem to enjoy learning things, especially on warm days when they are more active. The Johnston’s crocodiles, found along the Zoo’s Tiger Trail, favor a sit-and-wait hunting strategy, snatching prey with a lightning-fast sideways movement of the head.
May 16, 2012, was a huge day for the Reptile Department at the San Diego Zoo: we received 10 young Indian gharials from our partners, the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology in India. This import has been very significant to the Species Survival Plan for gharials, as this new group of animals means the addition of new genetics and a younger demographic for zoo collections. Our Zoo is one of only seven North American zoos to house gharials. Head down the Tiger Trail at the Zoo to see these amazing young crocodilians for yourself!
Of the 23 crocodilian species, 12 are in need of conservation help. Many croc species are hunted by people for their skins to make shoes and luggage, and some have suffered from a loss of habitat. But there are conservation success stories, too. The American alligator was listed as endangered in 1967, after being heavily hunted for its hide and meat, and its numbers plummeted to about 200 animals. But through captive breeding (farming) and conservation of wild populations, these alligators were declared “fully recovered” by 1987. Today, they are found in the southeastern United States, and hunting these animals is tightly regulated.
Efforts by the Crocodile Specialist Group, affiliated with the International Union of Conservation of Nature, are now under way to help other crocs that are still in trouble. The group’s Human-Crocodile Conflict Working Group currently monitors Nile crocodile attacks on humans and livestock in Africa. In China, a breeding center has been established to help the critically endangered Chinese alligator and has begun releasing captive-bred alligators into wild habitats and monitoring the results. In India, juvenile mugger crocodiles raised in captivity are being released to restock rivers.
San Diego Zoo Global continues its efforts to help gharials. Habitat destruction and environmental degradation have eliminated this species across much of its historical range. This species has experienced a decline of 96 to 98 percent over a 3-generation period since 1946, and its population has been reduced to a very small number of widely spaced subpopulations of fewer than 235 individuals. The drastic decline in the gharial population can be attributed to a variety of causes, including over-hunting for skins and trophies, egg collection for consumption, use in native medicines, and killing by fishermen. Hunting is no longer considered to be a significant threat; however, the wild population of gharials has undergone a drastic decline of about 58 percent between 1997 and 2006.
The last remaining strong-hold for gharials is the Chambal National Sanctuary, a river nearly 250 miles long, in north India that feeds into the Ganges River. Current conservation measures include protection of nests from predators and raising hatchlings in captivity until they reach a size that we hope gives them greater survivorship when released into the wild. We partner with the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology (MCBT), one of the largest reptile zoos in the world and one of the oldest nongovernment environmental organizations in Asia. San Diego Zoo Global manages the Gharial Conservation Fund, through which we are able to support much-needed gharial research and conservation efforts in the field. We plan to continue to partner with the MCBT and other zoos for the conservation of this amazing species.