Operation Siamese Crocodile

Australia Zoo's International Crocodile Rescue Unit succeeds in the rescue and relocation of a critically endangered Siamese Crocodile in Cambodia

The Mission:

Find, rescue and relocate critically endangered Siamese Crocodiles.

The Location:

The construction site in the Cardamom Mountains

Deep in the mountainous jungle of Cambodia

The odds of success:

Buckley's to none if you don't have nerves of steel, a clue about crocs, logistics and living on a basic diet of dried fish and rice for three weeks. Well, Buckley's for ordinary folk, that is. If you're in the Australia Zoo Rescue Unit (AZRU) then your training and experience sets you up for success.

And so it was when head of AZRU's Brian Coulter and team member Toby Millyard, experts in crocodile trapping and release, answered a cry to help from Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and the Forestry Administration (FA) of Cambodia about some Siamese Crocodiles that were losing their habitat due to a large hydro dam project.

The dam is being constructed by a Chinese company in the Cardamom Mountains in South West Cambodia. Siamese crocodiles, once considered extinct but have been rediscovered, are a critically endangered species with possibly less than 250 individuals left in the wild today.

A small group of Siamese Crocodiles affected by the dam construction are stranded between the hydro dam wall and a 60m waterfall. On completion of the dam the 750m stretch of river will be drained. Without rescue and relocation, it will only be a matter of time before these crocodiles lose their habitat and perish.

Adam Starr, Project Manager at FFI's Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Project blogged: "Over the past two years, my team and I have been considering how to deal with this issue and save these animals. The logistics of managing such a rescue seemed overwhelming; the actual site is extremely remote, the section of river is up to 6m deep in places and the nearest river to safely move them to, is more than 20km away.

"It was during this planning stage that I was introduced to Australia Zoo and their Wildlife Rescue Unit. I knew the work of the late Steve Irwin, but I wasn't aware that his team was still working hard to rescue crocodiles around the world. Briano Coulter - a protégé of Steve and probably one of the best crocodile trackers in the world - and his team are now carrying on his work."

Ranger Training

After months of planning, including a reconnaissance trip to survey the area and sort the logistics for a croc relocation effort, Briano and Toby arrived to help. They first gave some crocodile capture and handling training at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre in Phnom Penh.

Adam Starr commented it was "a great learning experience for my Cambodian colleagues" and an exchange in "not only professional knowledge, but also culture".

Logistical Challenges

After that, they travelled for 10 hours to the village of O'Som, in the middle of the Cardamom Mountains, only 15km away from the crocodile and hydro dam construction site. Once there, jungle and steep cliffs on the northern side of the river made access to the river, and ultimately any croc, a challenge.

"On the first night we spotlighted the area and counted three crocodiles in the river," Briano recalled. "Suitable trap sites were located and we put the traps in while training the FFI and FA rangers on trap construction. The traps were baited and the waiting game began."

Lucky Anglong

Brian and Toby with Anglong the Siamese Crocodile

Luckily there wasn't much waiting as on the second night one of the traps was successful! A beautiful 2.1 metre-long mature female Siamese Crocodile was caught and given the name 'Anglong' after the river she inhabited. Due to heavy rain in the area the track to the release site was impassable. So luckily Wildlife Alliance, another non-government organisation, was generous enough to make their chopper available. The trip to the release site was only 10 minutes over dense jungle.

"We were able to restrain Anglong in the back of the chopper for the short trip," Briano said. "The release went very smoothly and before long Anglong was swimming around in her new undisturbed habitat where other Siamese crocs are living."

Brian and Toby shared their skills and knowledge and provided some equipment to local members of FFI and Government so they can continue trapping and relocation.

Gifts For Locals

Before they returned to the Zoo, Briano, Toby and Bruce Levick (who videoed the whole mission) were delighted to deliver some clothes and sports equipment to local schools and villagers, courtesy of Terri, Bindi and Robert Irwin, the Zoo crew and Australian business owners. "It was definitely a plus on this mission to see the smiles on children's faces as they were given clothes ranging from pyjamas to some of Bindi's awards-night dresses," Briano said.