Gator Saviors

The Chinese alligator is critically endangered.© Joseph Abene

Last summer, 15 baby Chinese alligators hatched on Chongming Island, China. That’s great news, says Bronx-based gator guru Joseph Abene, but the rare animal is still in trouble. The International Union for Conservation of Nature reports that the Chinese alligator is "critically endangered." Abene says fewer than 150 wild Chinese alligators live in a roughly 200-square-mile region of eastern China.

For the last two summers, Abene and Zhang Fang, a biology professor from Anhui Normal University, have been surveying wild Chinese alligators in Anhui Province. They plan to increase the population through controlled breeding.

Abene says the project poses several obstacles. Rainy weather impedes data collection, for one. Alligator breeding is tricky business—if a gator doesn’t like his betrothed, he might kill her, or vice versa. And farmers complain that Chinese alligators, the only relatives of the American alligator, like to terrorize ducks.

The scientists say the farmers are overreacting. Chinese alligators prefer rodents, Abene notes. Zhang, who works part-time for the Wildlife Conservation Society and wrote his master’s thesis on the Chinese alligator’s sexual behavior, describes the gators as "very gentle."

Abene estimates that the survey-and-breeding project will take between 10 and 15 years. The Anhui Research Center of Chinese Alligator Reproduction provides most of the funding. Abene, curator at the Georgia-based Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation, gets partial funding from the Cullen Vivarium Wildlife Conservancy in Milwaukee. He has also spent $5,000 out of pocket.

According to Abene, Chinese officials could save wild Chinese Alligators—known locally as "muddy dragons"—by turning the animals" Anhui stomping grounds into a wildlife preserve. "It’s a grand idea," he concedes. "And it’s pretty much the only way that the remaining habitat will be saved."