Gator aid for endangered Chinese alligators

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A Chinese alligator is spotted in Chongming County during the night "hunt" in the wetland. [China Daily] 

The Chinese alligator is critically endangered and in 2007 scientists introduced six reptiles to wetlands on Shanghai's Chongming Island. How are they doing? Zha Minjie and Zhao Wen report on a nighttime field trip.

Four small boats glide silently past reed-covered marshy banks on a clear September night on Chongming Island, searchlights sweeping the water surface ahead. Suddenly a small pair of eyes glow red in the light of a flashlight.

"I think I just saw a small alligator," gasps volunteer Wang Jiyi, suddenly remembering to lower his voice, since the animals have keen hearing. He points to the eyes, hidden where wetland reeds meet the water around 10 meters away.

As the boat is rowed closer, the eyes placed high on the head do not move as the yellow and black bands on the small creature's head become visible. In a long lens, Wang looks a wild, critically endangered Chinese alligator (alligator sinensis) in the eye.

"What a beautiful species," says Dr/Professor He Xin from Shanghai-based East China Normal University, who joined the night-time expedition. He estimates the young gator is little more than 10 centimeters in length. "So far it's still a cute baby."

It can eventually grow into a 1.2- to 1.7-meter-long adult if everything goes well, with no loss of habitat, no hunters or farmers and no water pollution.

This scientific alligator preservation "hunt" last Saturday was a search by experts and volunteers for the endangered reptiles that were released into the wild on Chongming Island for the first time in 2007. At that time six individuals, male and female, were released, some from a different gene pool of Chinese alligators in the United States.

From sightings of alligators, nests and broken eggshells since then, the indications are that the gators are doing well and breeding in their new home.

On this September night, volunteers and experts spotted 10 individuals. This is about time for them to start digging holes and hibernate for the winter. On September 7, 12 individuals were sighted and photographed. There may be duplicate sightings.

Chongming contains some of Shanghai's only wetland areas, and some of these have been reclaimed from development.

The Chinese alligator is one of only two alligators species in the world and by far the smallest. The other is the huge American alligators, alligator mississsippiensis, which is abundant in the southwest United States. Adult males grow 4 to 4.5 meters in length.

The Chinese alligator is native only to the lower Yangtze River Delta, notably Shanghai and Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces, as well as Lake Tai. It's on China's most-endangered list.

All alligators are crocodiles but crocodiles are not alligators. They have different-shaped snouts and teeth placements. Alligators have U-shaped snouts; crocodiles have narrower V-shaped snouts. Chinese alligators are dark, almost black in color, while American alligators are brown or olive. Chinese alligators are also armored on their bellies, unlike their American cousins.


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