In the Year of the Dragon

Ironically, China’s only real dragon—the Chinese alligator—may become extinct in the wild in 2000, otherwise known as the Year of the Dragon. One of only two remaining alligator species in the world, this reptile has the dubious distinction of being the planet’s most endangered species.

The Chinese alligator—called “Tu Long” or “earth dragon”—and the mythical beast that became an Imperial symbol have many similar physical characteristics, says Dr. John Thorbjarnarson, a biologist and crocodile specialist at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The Chinese alligator, down to just 150 individuals in the wild, would probably disappear completely if it weren’t for the successful efforts of captive breeding.

About half the size of their American counterparts, Chinese alligators have long been considered agricultural pests, says Thorbjarnarson. Hunted and killed because their burrows interfered with irrigation systems, today Chinese alligators in the wild number only 150.

The disappearance of the Chinese alligator in the wild might just be inevitable, says Thorbjarnarson. But the picture is not as dismal as it might seem. In an effort to prevent the extinction of the species, the government has been raising and breeding the reptiles in captivity with positive results. The Anhui Research Center for Chinese Alligator Reproduction has been home to 8,700 alligators, according to Wang Zhibao, an administrator at the State Forestry Department in China.

Following the successful examples of the California condor and the black-footed ferret, Chinese alligators bred in captivity will be released in a suitable habitat, says James Perran Ross, executive officer of the Crocodile Specialist Group at the World Conservation Union. “Although reintroduction has not been attempted before with the Chinese alligator, other crocodilians raised in captivity have adapted well in the wild,” says Ross. “There is no reason to believe it would be any different with the Chinese alligator.”

The very cause of the reptile’s demise—agriculture—is also producing possible solutions. Sediments from deforestation and cultivation have created two sites along China’s coast near the mouth of the Yangtze River. These new islands and wetlands are potential environments for reintroducing the Chinese alligator to the wild. But funding to support reintroduction programs is desperately needed.

Jim Darlington, senior keeper at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida, says adults especially are drawn to the Chinese alligator. He believes it might be the alligator’s small stature, compact snout or their “puppy-dog” eyes that attract mature audiences. Or perhaps, adults are more likely to appreciate the fact that without swift and steady intervention, their children will never have the opportunity to observe these regal reptiles in the wild.