The Orinoco crocodile returns to its natural habitat thanks to UNal
UN/DICYT “Federico”, “Cristina”, “John” and “Miriam” were the names given to these crocs which with a little apprehension now call the Guayabero and Lozada River banks home.
After two years of being at the UNal Roberto Franco Tropical Biological Station conservation program in Villavicencio, they grew to almost two meters long (6.5 ft.) and 150 kilos.
This was the end of a release program which in practice began when Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Zootechnics Professor Carlos Moreno; Teacher Education major Robinson Suárez; Biologist Rafael Moreno, and Environmental Engineer Willington Martínez, under the leadership of UNal Faculty of Sciences Associate Professor María Cristina Ardila initiated this croc release program, a few years back.
Ardila recalls when the program began three years ago when a group of UNal experts decided to release a number of animals reared at the biological station, as the result of an institutional and scientific effort which now has 19 years in the making.
The idea behind the process is that they would release adult crocs as opposed to releasing young crocodiles which is not always the most recommendable as they are naive and vulnerable and besides they do not stay in one sole location, and are also difficult to reproduce.
This was a long and complex process where they had to face several challenges including paperwork and a long and arduous legal process to comply with environmental regulations as well as build new management and health protocols which where new in Colombia for this type of process.
They also had to procure financial support from the La Macarena Corporation for Sustainable Development (CORMACARENA, for its Spanish acronym) and support from non-governmental institutions such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and governmental institutions such as the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute.
The crocodiles were kept at the biological station under supervision of Willington Martínez, who also helped in their journey to the La Macarena this past October.
“We covered their eyes and restrained their legs to reduce the stress levels as the stress may produce diseases which place them in grave danger,” said Moreno who was also in charge of their health during the journey.
They needed the strength of six men and a UNal Zootechnician Pilar Vanegas to carry the crocs, which were placed in four individual 3.50 x 0.70 mt (11.4 x 2.2 ft) wooden crates.
Then they were shipped to the Apiay Air Force Base where a Colombian Air Force aircraft awaited to fly them the urban area of La Macarena.
Despite being held in captivity the crocs are prepared to hunt as they were trained with live bait, a protocol demanded by Colombian environmental regulations which was also included in the protocol written by UNal experts for shipping and releasing wild animals.
To become cognizant of the fate of the crocodiles the experts installed satellite transmitters on the crocs to monitor their location and behavior among other parameters. The transmitters will also help scientists learn about their daily routines.
According to Moreno, the biological station currently has more than 490 crocodiles, in other words close to 90% of the living surviving specimens. The station is the only place in Colombia which preserves the Orinoco crocodile and authorized by Agreement 1698 of the former INDERENA (today the Ministry of the Environment, Housing and Territorial Development) to reproduce them. The remaining 10% fend for themselves in the Provinces of Arauca, Vichada, Casanare and area of Meta where human pressure is continuous.