The Orinoco crocodile (Crocodylus intermedius) is globally distributed in two countries of South America – Venezuela and Colombia. With hundreds of tributaries, the Orinoco River is the third largest in the subcontinent after the Amazon.
Being one of the most endangered crocodiles in the world (known in Colombia as “Caiman Llanero” or “the Llanos crocodile”), there is an urgency to implement conservation programs for the Orinoco crocodile in this region. Venezuelans are more familiar with this species and recently have become quite involved in its conservation. This is not so true in Colombia, where little is known about its status and the importance of the conservation for this crocodile.
Since the 1950s, extensive research on the crocodilians of South America has been done. Dr. Federico Medem (1912-1984) was renowned for his research on the crocodiles and caimans, particularly in Colombia where there are eight species (two crocodiles and six caimans). In 1966, the National University of Colombia offered Medem the position of director at the “Roberto Franco Institute”, now known as “Roberto Franco Tropical Biology Station” (RFTBS). Medem’s studies on crocodilians started as pure science, but as he became immersed in their ecology, he decided to focus more on conservation because of the impact of overhunting and habitat destruction. The scientific and conservation work done by Medem is one of the most complete and extensive studies of crocodilians and other reptiles, such as Chelonians (turtles).
Luis Sigler, Conservation Biologist at the DWA, traveled to Villavicencio, Colombia to observe the Orinoco crocodile conservation program at the RFTBS. Sigler was recently invited to keep the Orinoco Crocodile Studbook for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Even though the DWA has been working since 1998 with the governmental agencies in Venezuela for the conservation of the Orinoco crocodile, the partnership with another country is welcomed.
The RFTBS has approximately 400 Orinoco crocodiles, making it the most important breeding center for the species in Colombia. In 1991, the first successful captive hatching in Colombia occurred at the center. There are 40 holding ponds for hatchlings, juveniles, sub adults and adult breeding crocodiles.
The RFTBS also has an incubation room, commissary and clinic. There are also offices, conference rooms, labs and a scientific collection prepared by Dr. Federico Medem, along with interesting displays of his scientific instruments used 40 years ago.
Since the origin of the RFTBS in 1966, there has been much research of the Colombian Crocodylia, particularly in the case of the Orinoco crocodile. There is important knowledge on reproduction, artificial incubation of eggs, hatchling development, diets, nutrition and growth, hematology, genetics and wild population studies.
The DWA hopes to maintain an open communication window with the RFTBS and collaborate with them in the future concerning the conservation of one of the iconic species of the DWA’s “Rainforest” exhibit – the Orinoco crocodile.
Special thanks to Professor Cristina Ardila (RFTBS director), as well as Willington Martinez, German Preciado and Robinson Suarez for their kind assistance and time shared with DWA and its staff.