Disappearing Crocodiles

As Belize endangered marine species go, it's usually sea turtles and manatees that garner all the attention. The fate of the endangered American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), on the other hand, is largely overlooked. This is probably due to the long-standing misconception that crocodiles pose a major threat to humans. Ironically, for many reasons, it may actually be the crocodile that is the most endangered of the three in Belize.

Due to its relative unpopularity, little research has been conducted on the American Crocodile. We do know that it is one of two species of crocodiles that occur in Belize, and it can be found on offshore cayes and atolls, and in mainland coastal habitats. The largest crocodile population (less than 300) in Belize occurs in the Turneffe Atoll, located approximately 35 km east of Belize City. Low numbers of crocodiles can be found on Ambergris Caye, with Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve being the only protected area where significant populations occur. Both crocodile species are currently listed as endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act and are also considered threatened by the Coastal Zone Management Program, Department of Fisheries, and the Government of Belize due to a number of threats. Populations of crocodiles began to decrease in the late 1930's and late 1940's when commercial crocodile hunting began in Belize. High quality leather can be prepared from crocodile skins and past over-harvesting has depleted crocodile populations throughout Central America. This type of exploitation is not known to still occur, yet far greater threats still exist for the crocodile. For one, monofilament gill nets used by fishermen appear to be a great source of mortality, causing crocodiles to drown.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
The greatest threat, however, to the fate of the crocodile in Belize, is habitat destruction, especially the development of nesting beaches and nursery habitat. Mangrove swamps and turtle grass beds are important foraging habitats for crocodiles, offering an abundance of fish and invertebrates, however some turtle grass beds have been lost to dredging and water pollution, and mangroves are increasingly being cleared. Ambergris Caye appears to provide an ideal habitat for crocodiles, yet with tourist and residential development on the rise, nesting sites may be threatened.

Given the limited size of the crocodile population in Belize (estimated at 900), loss of even a few animals can make a significant impact. Coastal Zone Management has suggested the following conservation recommendations for the crocodile: 1) preservation of known and potential nesting habitat; 2) a long-term monitoring program; 3) restriction of use of monofilament gill nets; 4) promotion as an ecotourism attraction; and 5) public education. Together with marine turtles and the West Indian Manatee, the American crocodile should be considered a species essential to the protection of critical coastal zone habitats.

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