Crocodile Love

When researchers discovered a remnant population of endangered crocodiles near a Philippine national park in 1999, the future seemed bleak for the rare reptiles. Crocodiles were widely reviled and often killed, and efforts to reintroduce farmed crocodiles back into the wild were faltering in the face of local resistance. By challenging some fundamental assumptions about conservation in the Philippines, however, one local group has succeeded in transforming hostility towards crocodiles into support for the species, researchers report in a new study.

“Efforts to conserve crocodiles in the Philippines have focused almost exclusively on sustainable use,” Jan van der Ploeg and Merlijn van Weerd of Leiden University in the The Netherlands, and Robert R. Araño of the Mabuwaya Foundation in the Philippines, write in the Journal of Environment & Development. In practice, that meant developing crocodile farming or ecotourism ventures designed to generate income from the animals – and change local attitudes. “The commodification of the species has, however, failed,” they argue in their study, which compares and contrasts several conservation efforts. “The two crocodile species that occur in the Philippine archipelago remain severely threatened in the wild, and communities living in crocodile habitat have not profited from ranching or ecotourism.” And efforts to reintroduce crocodiles have fallen flat, they argue, in large part because there’s been little focused effort to educate local communities and shift attitudes about the powerful predators.

The 1999 discovery of the remnant population near the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park on the island of Luzon, however, offered an opportunity to challenge the conventional wisdom. Local governments and Isabela State University (ISU) – and ultimately a nonprofit called the Mabuwaya Foundation – established the Crocodile, Rehabilitation, Observance and Conservation (CROC) project. CROC’s goal: to change local attitudes about crocodiles and conserve the species in its natural habitat. Soon, CROC was meeting village officials and running education campaigns, report the authors, who are involved in the effort. Some results were surprising: “Defying cultural prejudice, the local government of San Mariano proclaimed the Philippine crocodiles as the flagship species of the municipality,” they write. “Village councils banned destructive fishing methods and created small protected areas to protect the species and its freshwater habitat.” Local governments even approved the reintroduction of crocodiles into areas where they had been killed off.

A decade later, the results were clear: “The crocodile population in San Mariano recovered from 12 nonhatchling crocodiles in 2000 to 64 in 2009.” And, by and large, “crocodiles are no longer purposively killed in the northern Sierra Madre.”

The case study suggests a “counter-narrative” for crocodile conservation, the authors conclude. “Cultural values, such as pride in the occurrence of this rare and iconic species, form an important incentive for people to support the preservation of the species in the wild.” The experience also “suggests that the conception of incentives purely in terms of cash benefits is too narrow and potentially counterproductive” – because it can shift attention and resources away from preserving the species in the wild.

Now, they say, the question is whether other conservation projects – and the Philippine government — can learn from CROC’s successes. “Throughout the Philippines there are numerous examples of small-scale conservation projects implemented by small civil society organizations that succeed in engaging rural communities in the preservation of threatened species,” they note. “Much can be gained if these local experiments can be replicated in other areas of the country, with institutional and financial support of national government and international donors.”

In the meantime, however, the Philippine government appears to be clinging to “the idea that only economic incentives can transform people’s antagonistic attitudes toward crocodiles,” the authors write. And just recently, the capture of a 21-foot-long saltwater crocodile near Mindanao prompted the head of the country’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources to claim that reintroduction remains politically impossible: “There is no mayor anywhere in the Philippines who would allow the release of crocodiles in his municipality,” Ramon Paje told reporters.

In fact, a number of senior Philippine politicians have personally been involved in crocodile releases, van der Ploeg notes. “Challenging policy narratives and making sure that high officials are well informed,” he says, “remains a major challenge.” David Malakoff | Septemeber 20, 2011

Source: van der Ploeg, J., Arano, R., & van Weerd, M. (2011). What Local People Think About Crocodiles: Challenging Environmental Policy Narratives in the Philippines The Journal of Environment & Development DOI: 10.1177/1070496511416743

Image © Sa-nga Chotikapakorn |