Feb. 25 - There are high hopes for grassroots conservation efforts in Laos aimed at saving the now rare Siamese crocodile from extinction. The animal was once found throughout Southeast Asia and Indonesia but is now only hanging on in remote parts of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. Tara Cleary reports.
Clambering to be free, these 18-month-old Siamese crocodiles will soon get their wish. Nineteen reptiles are being placed into a holding pen next to a lake in southern Laos. Alex McWilliam from the Wildlife Conservation Society says it's part of a gradual, grassroots effort to restore the animals to their native habitat. SOUNDBITE: ALEX MCWILLIAM, WILDLIFE CONSERVATION SOCIETY SAYING (English): "The young crocodiles will stay here (in the pen) for around the next two and a half months and then once the water comes up in the wet season the crocodiles will swim their way out once the water has got high enough over the top of the pen." The Siamese crocodile is critically endangered. Only 250 are believed to exist in the wild. It's been hunted for its skin and forced from much of its habitat in Southeast Asia by human encroachment. But now, with these young crocs born and raised at a zoo, conservationists are trying to bring the animals back. SOUNDBITE: ALEX MCWILLIAM, WILDLIFE CONSERVATION SOCIETY SAYING (English): "Today releasing 19 of them back to the wild is quite a significant contribution, both to the global population and also to the Lao's population as well." Launched in 2008, the conservation plan depends on local volunteers to monitor the animals and ensure they stay in the district's lake. The villagers subsist on fishing and rice farming ... and say they happily co-exist with the crocodiles. SOUNDBITE: KAM POH, BAN TANSOUM'S VILLAGE HEADMAN, SAYING (Laotian): "The crocodiles in this village have never attacked people. They're rather afraid of humans. When we work in the swamp we sometimes see them surface, but they never bother people. They don't harm anyone." Locals have also raised four crocodiles of their own from eggs found nearby. They too will be released into the wild, part of a broader effort not only to save the species but educate the next generation about the importance of a balanced ecology.