Scientists race to save Cuban crocodiles

Man holds baby crocodile in his hand while releasing him into water, Scientists race to save Cuban crocodiles
Biologist Etiam Perez releases a baby Cuban crocodile at the Zapata Swamp, Cuba, credit: Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Cuban crocodiles, a species only found in Cuba’s Zapata Swamp and Isla de la Juventud, are critically endangered and are in danger of going extinct, scientists say.

“(The Cuban crocodile) faces several challenges, one of them is illegal hunting, which has the greatest consequence in reducing the population in the wild,” researcher Etiam Perez said.

“But they also face other problems, such as the results of climate change and cross-breeding with the American crocodile,” he added.

Around 4,000 crocodiles live in the wild, scientist estimate. But because the area they prefer to live in is relatively small, a climate-related disaster could wipe out most of the population.

“They have an area of about 700 square kilometres, but the core population, where the largest number of Cuban crocodiles are found, is only about 300 square kilometres,” Perez said, adding that “if something happened there, they would practically become extinct because their habitat would disappear.”

To save the species from extinction, the Cuban government has been financing a hatchery program that annually releases several hundred Cuban crocodiles into the wild to increase the number of individuals.

Researchers like Perez also release crocodiles seized from hunters, a program that has helped prevent poaching of the Cuban crocodiles.

“Releasing crocodiles seized from poachers is really impressive because we return the animal to a free life in the wild,” Perez said.

In 2008, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed Cuban crocodiles as critically endangered. The IUCN said its population estimates need updating and confirmed concerns over the animals’ limited habitat.

Cuban crocodiles can grow up to 2.3 meters and weigh around 80 kilograms. Large males can reach 3.5 meters and weigh around 215 kilograms.

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