Two Endangered Crocs Get a Head Start at NC Aquarium
Caption: NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, herpetologist Fred Boyce, gently holds a juvenile, critically endangered Orinoco crocodile. The Aquarium’s professional animal care team will raise two of these reptiles for about 2 years as part of a conservation program, Project Return to the Llanos.
Pine Knoll Shores, N.C. — The largest crocodilian species in the western hemisphere, the Orinoco crocodile, has yellow-gold eyes and matching yellow-gold scales, a long, toothy mouth with an up-turned snout at the end, and is on the brink of extinction.
A conservation effort, Project Return to the Llanos, aims to head-start Orinoco crocodiles through a breeding and release program, and this summer the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores welcomes two of the critically endangered crocodile hatchlings.
A new exhibit, opening in mid- to late-June in the Coastal Plains gallery at the Aquarium called Journey to the Orinoco, will feature a crocodile habitat specifically adapted to fit the needs of the juvenile reptiles. The surrounding exhibit will tell the story of these unique crocodilians. Visitors can learn about the crocodiles, their special characteristics such as the unique spot pattern found on every crocodile’s tail, feeding habits, see timelines for conservation efforts and learn ways to help species of concern like the Orinoco crocodiles as well as species closer to home.
“This program presented us with a unique opportunity to help save a critically endangered species. While we tend to focus on North Carolina animals, we know that it takes all of us working together to help protect the diversity of animals found around the world. We are honored to be entrusted with their care,” said Liz Baird, director of the Aquarium.
The two crocodiles arrived at the Aquarium in mid-May and have been behind-the-scenes adapting to their new surroundings. They will be moved to their publicly viewable habitat in June. The habitat and associated exhibit are planned to be open to the public mid- to late-June.
As participants in Project Return to the Llanos, the Aquarium professional animal care team will raise the two Orinoco crocodile hatchlings for about two years until they are big enough to be returned to the wilds of their native habitat in Venezuela.
The Aquarium joins the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Gladys Porter Zoo, Zoo Miami, and The Dallas World Aquarium in this global conservation effort to save the critically endangered crocodile through an ex-situ program that hopes to increase the wild population.
Native only to the Orinoco River system in the Llanos of Venezuela and the Meta River system in Colombia, overhunting, habitat loss, and pollution have pushed this animal to the brink of extinction. “Our American alligators were also once threatened with extinction, and we now see the successful recovery of that species. We must continue to protect habitats and reduce pollution to keep both the Orinoco crocodile and American alligator safe,” said Baird.
In the early 1970s there were an estimated 3 million Orinoco crocodiles (sometimes called “O-crocs”) living in their natural range, but by the early 2000s there were only 1,500 believed to be left in Venezuela and less than 200 in Colombia.
In 1997, The Dallas World Aquarium constructed the biome Orinoco - Secrets of the River to highlight the biodiversity of this important river basin. In 1998, that aquarium obtained a pair of adult Orinoco crocodiles on indefinite loan from the government of Venezuela. Since 2003 Dallas World Aquarium has successfully produced healthy offspring through breeding and artificial incubation. Since then, the Gladys Porter Zoo of Brownsville Texas and Zoo Miami of Florida have joined the effort.
“The greatest challenge for projects like Return to the Llanos is not producing offspring, it’s rearing enough hatchlings to a size that can be successfully reintroduced to the wild. One facility would not be able to raise enough on its own. This is where we can help,” said Fred Boyce, herpetologist for N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. “Raising enough hatchlings to be released into the wild becomes an all-hands-on-deck situation requiring active participation from many accredited zoological zoos and aquariums.” The Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores already has the space, the expert care team, and the means to care for these animals. They will be provided a similar diet to the American alligators already at the Aquarium as well as live fish, enrichment, and a professional veterinary team.
“We are so honored and excited to be able to care for these exquisite creatures as well as share their incredible story with our visitors. We hope that we can spark curiosity in our visitors to learn more, as well as a desire to help protect these and other crocodilian species,” said Boyce.