Saturday, June 23, 2007

Saving Siamese Crocodiles

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.”


Andy said...

Edith's jungle nerves - June 18 2007

Edith Bowman has confessed that she was petrified about going to Cambodia to present a Saving Planet Earth episode dedicated to the plight of Siamese crocodiles in Cambodia.

Despite her excitement about the crocodile conservation project, pre-trip jitters almost got the better of the Radio 1 DJ, and she admits that she had some serious reservations about camping outside in the jungle.

"In my head I'd made myself a bit frightened about spending four days sleeping in a hammock in the jungle, underneath a piece of tarpaulin," she says.

"I'd actually really worked myself up about how horrendous it was going to be but in the end I absolutely loved it, and I had some of the best sleeps I've ever had in that hammock which was bizarre - it must have been all that fresh air!

"Also spending time in the local villages and seeing how little they have but how happy they are is really humbling, it really puts everything into perspective.

"I actually took a Polaroid camera with me and took loads of pictures of the little kids and gave them a picture of themselves - most of them had never seen themselves apart from their reflection in the river so their reaction was amazing."

Andy said...

Celebrating Siamese crocodiles on film : 30/05/2007:

A new BBC television series aims to raise awareness and funds for the Critically Endangered Siamese crocodile. Saving Planet Earth starts on BBC1 on Sunday 24th June at 7pm and follows nine celebrities as they film some of the world's most endangered animals.

Radio 1 DJ Edith Bowman visited Fauna & Flora International’s Siamese crocodile team to make a programme about the reptile and the people actively involved in its conservation. The last viable population of Siamese crocodiles clings on precariously in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains.
Edith saw at first hand how staff from Fauna & Flora International’s Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Programme and members of the Por ethnic group protect the last few hundred crocodiles in the wild.
Because the threats to Siamese crocodiles are representative of the threats to the freshwater ecosystems on which Cambodians depend for their staple foods of rice and fish, the film shows the relationship between mankind’s fate and that of wildlife and wild places.

Saving Planet Earth will culminate in a live fundraising event at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London. Donations made through Saving Planet Earth are given to the BBC Wildlife Fund. The Fund organizes distributing the money - usually as grants over three years - to dozens of conservation charity partners. Fauna & Flora International will be applying for grant funding in 2007.

The following are indications of what donations could achieve:
• £10 pays for a crocodile warden for a month.
• £100 enables large awareness signboards to be placed within a community or crocodile sanctuary.
• £1,000 allows every crocodile nest to be protected against predators (monitor lizards, pigs) or other threats (fire, flooding and people).
• £10,000 funds a survey and research team for one year.
• £20,000 establishes a new community crocodile sanctuary, designed and built in a participatory process with villagers.
• £100,000 would run the crocodile project for two years OR establish a Trust Fund to sustain the community warden scheme in perpetuity OR establish a tagging system in nearby crocodile ranches to make it harder for ranchers to launder wild-caught crocodiles.

The day before Edith's Siamese crocodile programme is aired on U.K. television, Fauna & Flora International will hold a ‘behind the scenes’ talk about the series. The talk will be held on Tuesday 26 June 2007 from 6.30pm at Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street, London W1. The drinks evening will include a selection of food from countries across SouthEast Asia, a silent auction and a very rare and wonderful exhibition of original artwork of Siamese crocodiles.

Andy said...

The Independent On Sunday: 24 June 2007

People And Places: Edith Bowman catches crocodiles in Cambodia :
Radio 1 DJ Edith Bowman ventured deep into the jungle in search of these endangered creatures for this week's edition of the BBC series 'Saving Planet Earth'. But, as she explains to Jenny Cockle, the beast remained elusive ...

When the BBC asked me to make a film about saving crocodiles, rather than a more cuddly species such as orang-utans, I was actually really pleased.

The crocodile isn't the most obvious of endangered species and it's often perceived in a negative way. The Siamese crocodile - a small freshwater croc - is one of the most endangered breeds in the wild, thanks to the fashion industry's demand for its skin. The BBC programme gave me the opportunity to travel to its natural habitat and discover at first hand its important place in Cambodia's ecosystem.

I'd never been to South-east Asia, but friends who had travelled to neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam had raved to me about the area's outstanding natural beauty and the friendliness of the people. Cambodia lived up to my expectations on both counts.

We flew via Bangkok to Siem Reap, the closest airport to the jungle marshes of the Cardamom Mountains in south-west Cambodia where the Siamese crocodile lives. Our trip would last only six days, so we wanted to spend as much time as possible out in the jungle observing crocodiles. But first we squeezed in a day trip to see the famous temples at Angkor Wat.

The ancient city of Angkor was the capital of the Khmer kingdom from 802 until 1295. The temples are incredibly beautiful. They are also very informative because the carvings on the walls depict Cambodia's history. I'd seen the temples in the first Tomb Raider film - which was filmed there - but it's quite an experience to walk through them. For one thing, monkeys leap about the place - it reminded me of a scene from The Jungle Book - and, in one temple, elephants roam around, which takes a bit of getting used to. All in all, it's a fascinating place and the tour guides are all incredibly helpful.

At first light the following morning, we drove out to a small airfield and boarded a helicopter which took us into the middle of the jungle. It was an amazing journey, travelling from the semi built-up area that is Siem Reap, across the enormous paddy fields glistening in the sunlight, to a wall of vast jungle. Viewed from above, it looked like an enormous sprig of broccoli; it was so dense. I must admit that the flight was slightly nerve-racking: when you're right out in the middle of the jungle you can't help thinking, if anything happens to us now we'll be lost for ever.

We visited last November when it was very hot and humid, so much so that the jungle appeared to have steam rising from it. When we landed in the Areng valley, near the village of Chumnoap, it was only 10am but already scorching hot. It takes a while to acclimatise and, without realising, I didn't drink enough water and I ended up suffering from sunstroke.

Our crew was joined by a team from Fauna & Flora International. We weren't given any preferential treatment at all: we were up at sunrise every morning to catch the boat and travel up and down the river in search of crocodiles.

I'm a pretty good traveller and don't mind roughing it, but I'd been very wary of making this trip to the jungle and was worried I'd hate it. In fact, I really enjoyed the experience. Our base was a man-made camp by the side of the river and we slept on hammocks underneath a piece of a tarpaulin. Our food consisted of rice and boiled river water - which tasted much like wood. Yet I hadn't slept so well in years.

There is something deeply calming about the noises in the jungle. Jenny Daltry, a reptile expert with Fauna & Flora International who travelled with us, has spent so much time studying in the area that she can identify every sound, even a male gibbon calling for a mate. And once you know what is making these strange noises, your anxieties soon disappear. Still, we couldn't guarantee uninterrupted sleep, because if one of the rangers spotted a crocodile in the middle of the night, we would all have to go out in the boat and search for it.

Unfortunately, we didn't see a crocodile in the wild during our trip, which I suppose is testament to the fact that there are only 250 left in the area. However, I did get up close and personal with them later at the crocodile rehabilitation centre just outside of Phnom Penh. I even helped to hold down a 10ft croc while the biologist took a DNA sample to see if it was a pure-bred Siamese crocodile.

Previously, I'd always thought of crocodiles as ferocious, man-eating creatures and I had no idea of their importance to the ecosystem. Essentially, they create waterways from the lakes to the river, which enable water to flow into the paddy fields where villagers grow their crops. The Siamese crocodile is also incredibly placid and there have been no reported attacks by them on humans.

We spent a day in one of the small villages off the river which had about 25 inhabitants. I took my Polaroid camera with me and was photographing the kids, which they found fascinating because it was the first time they'd seen a picture of themselves.

The villagers were so welcoming: it was great just to hang out and join in their games. We played a sort of keepy-uppy game with a shuttlecock for more than an hour and, embarrassingly, I was totally knackered by the end.

As well as my camera, I had packed some whisky and shortbread which I gave to the rangers. They were thrilled. They usually make their own alcoholic rice wine, which I can confirm is lethal. Quite a few of them were former crocodile hunters, so they've come full circle and are now helping to save them.

When we left the jungle we took the traditional route out, which entailed two hours on a small boat and four hours on the back of a moped, even riding through rivers. Despite the discomfort, we actually saw so much more of the country than in the helicopter.

Transport in Cambodia is quite basic and cramped, the aim being to squeeze on or in as many people as possible. It's not unusual to see up to four people perched on one bicycle, a bit like a balancing act at the circus. For buses, they use little Transit vans and as they pass by you just see a mass of faces pressed up against the windows.

I was amazed to see the amount of luggage our drivers managed to fix on to the mopeds as we were leaving the jungle. There were a few times when we nearly toppled over, but that was all part of the adventure.

Back in Phnom Penh, we took some time to explore the city. It's a vibrant place with wonderful food markets to browse and lots of tailors selling beautiful fabrics. It's such a mix: there are modern buildings and huge hoardings advertising products such as mobile phones, but you still see cattle wandering the streets. I really enjoyed the food; it tastes incredibly fresh. It's rice- and curry-based but mixed with exotic fruits such as mango.

But what sticks in my mind is the amazing colours of the country, the different shades of green in the jungle, the intensity of the light and the spectacular birds - you see lots of kingfishers skimming the water looking for food.

We didn't have time to relax on the beach, but I hear there are some beautiful sandy ones on the south-west coast in Sihanoukville, and there are many spectacular waterfalls, especially Poung Roul. I hope I will return one day to jump on one of those mopeds and speed off on another Cambodian adventure.