status: Critically endangered, IUCN Endangered, ESA
Description and biology
There are only two species of alligator: the Chinese alligator and the American alligator. An average Chinese alligator measures 6 to 6.5 feet (1.8 to 2 meters) long, about 3 feet (0.9 meter) shorter than the American species. The Chinese alligator is dark olive in color with yellowish spots. It has a large head with a short, broad snout that turns up slightly. The alligator feeds on snails, freshwater mussels, fish, insects, and small mammals.
The Chinese alligator spends much of its life in burrows that it digs in the banks of rivers, streams, and ponds. It hibernates in a burrow from late October until early April. After emerging from hibernation, the alligator is active mainly during the day. In June, the beginning of the breeding season, the alligator becomes more nocturnal (active at night). After mating, a female Chinese alligator builds a mounded nest from dry leaves and grasses. She then lays 10 to 40 eggs
between July and August. As the vegetation that makes up the nest begins to rot, the temperature inside the nest rises and the eggs begin to incubate (develop). When they hatch about 70 days later, the young alligators measure just over 8 inches (20 centimeters) long and weigh about 1 ounce (28 grams).
Habitat and current distribution
As its name indicates, the Chinese alligator is found in China. It is restricted to the lower valley of the Yangzi (Yangtze) River in Anhui (Anhwei), Zhejiang (Chekiang), and Jiangsu (Kiangsu) Provinces. Biologists (people who study living organisms) estimate that only about 130 Chinese alligators now exist in the wild. Most of these are found in Anhui Province. A large captive-breeding facility in Anhui holds another 10,000 alligators.
The Chinese alligator prefers to inhabit low beaches and dense stands of cane (type of plant) along the lower Yangzi River and its adjacent lakes and ponds.
History and conservation measures
The Chinese alligator once ranged more widely along the lower and middle Yangzi River Basin (region drained by the river and the streams that flow into it), as far west as Hunan and Hubei Provinces. As the human population in China has soared, the alligators' habitat has dwindled. Most contact between the alligators and humans has proven fatal for the alligators: they are often killed for food or because they are feared.
Environmental factors have also endangered the Chinese alligator. A flash flood can quickly trap an alligator, and if it cannot reach an air pocket or the water's surface, it drowns. A drought can reduce its habitat, forcing the alligator to search for water and suitable nesting sites. Because most remaining Chinese alligators inhabit wetlands and ponds that are scattered widely apart, drought remains a serious threat.
The Chinese government has given the Chinese alligator legal protection. In addition, several conservation areas have been set aside for the alligator, including the Wuhu Alligator Sanctuary in Anhui Province. Chongming Island, which is located near the mouth of the Yangtze River, is also being prepared for the establishment of a wild population of Chinese alligators.