Saturday, June 23, 2007
As part of the BBC’s Saving Planet Earth series starting tomorrow, Radio One DJ Edith Bowman (pictured above) has made a one-off documentary in Cambodia on the plight of the Siamese crocodile. The documentary will be screened on UK BBC television at 7pm on Wednesday 27 June.
This particular crocodile’s history has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, it plays a vital part in the natural ecological balance of the tropical environment in Cambodia. On the other, the crocodiles’ population was so depleted by the fashion industry’s demand for skins that it was declared extinct in 1992. Edith Bowman joins reptile expert Jenny Daltry, who re-discovered a small remnant of the wild population deep in the Cambodian jungle, to uncover the very human story behind the attitudes of the local people to the crocodile. She travels to the jungle marshes of the Cardomom Mountains in south west Cambodia to learn about the importance of the crocodiles to the local people and how a combination of community work and high-tech science, funded by Fauna & Flora International, is helping to save the species.
However, Edith is horrified when she visits one of the 1,000 crocodile farms cultivating the reptiles for the fashion industry. Huge concrete bunkers house a variety of hybrid crocodiles whose fine, soft skins are prized for handbags and are worth $1,000 each. “I never thought that I could feel sympathy for crocodiles,” says Edith. “It’s tragic to see any animal being treated like this. Even worse, it’s a trade purely driven by fashion. Its extinction is being driven by our own vanity.” After a two-hour pillion ride into the jungle, Edith receives a warm welcome from the O’Som community, who live near the last stronghold of 250 wild crocs, discovered by Jenny during an amazing expedition in 2001. “I can’t imagine turning up in any town in the UK and getting reception like this – and playing keepy-ups with locals,” marvels Edith. The crocodiles are sacred to the villagers because of their role as top river predators, helping to maintain the natural ecological balance. The community would be the first to suffer if that balance changed and they are determined to maintain their traditional lifestyle.
Australian biologist Boyd Simpson is Fauna & Flora International’s man in the forest, working with the Cambodian wardens trying to locate, radio track and study the crocs. It’s not easy, as the animals that have survived years of persecution are, by definition, very hard to find. Earlier in the season, the team found a crocodile nest with 25 eggs – a real hope for the future. But, they are devastated when the nest is raided by a monitor lizard. For an animal on the edge of extinction, it’s a cruel fate. But there’s a ray of hope. The team work so closely with the Cambodian villagers that they get to hear of crocodiles being taken for the skin trade. The big question is finding out if the croc is a pure Siamese or from the wild. Edith gets involved while Boyd takes some DNA, wrapping some tape round a crocodile’s snapping jaw. “This is slightly strange to be straddling a croc,” she muses. If it is found to be a pure Siamese croc it could be the start of a new breeding programme to build the wild population.
On her last night at the camp, Edith brings out the whisky and shortbread to return the community’s hospitality. “Seeing how they live and seeing how important the crocodile is to the way they live, you can see they’re the perfect guardians for this animal,” she says. Holding a small baby croc in her hand, Edith says: “There are so few of the Siamese crocodiles left in the world, and they’re kind of seen as the black sheep of the endangered species. People have complete misconceptions about this animal. “They’re 65 million years old and they’ve survived dinosaurs – yet it looks like they may not survive us. You have the power to give them a second chance.”