status: Critically endangered, IUCN Endangered, ESA
range: Colombia, Venezuela
Description and biology
The Orinoco (pronounced or-i-NO-coe) crocodile is a very large crocodile that grows to an average length between 11 and 17 feet (3.4 and 5.2 meters). Some exceptionally large males of the species have been observed as being 23 feet (7 meters) long. The upper body of the crocodile is dark green to tan in color with dark markings. Its underside is lighter. It has a long nose and a narrow, slightly upturned snout. It feeds primarily on fish, small mammals, and birds.
After mating, a female Orinoco crocodile digs a hole in an exposed sandbar in a river in January or February (the dry season) and lays 40 to 70 eggs. The eggs hatch about 70 days later, when the river begins to rise during the wet season. The female protects her young for 1 to 3 years.
Habitat and current distribution
This crocodile species is found only in the Orinoco River Basin (area drained by the Orinoco River) in eastern Colombia and Venezuela. It is considered almost extinct in Colombia and very rare in Venezuela. Biologists (people who study living organisms) believe fewer than 1,500 Orinoco crocodiles currently survive in the wild.
The Orinoco crocodile prefers to inhabit wide and very deep parts of large rivers. During the wet season, when river currents are strong, the crocodile occupies lakes and pools.
History and conservation measures
Up until the 1930s, the Orinoco crocodile was considered to be very common. Now it is one of the most critically endangered crocodiles in the Western Hemisphere. Its large, high-quality hide is valuable to hunters. From 1930 through the 1950s, hunters nearly wiped out the Orinoco crocodile population. The species has never recovered from the onslaught.
Hunting remains a threat to the Orinoco crocodile. Humans in the region kill the crocodile for a number of reasons, including using its eggs and meat for food and its teeth for medicines. The crocodile now faces the added threat of habitat loss as human populations expand into its range.
In Venezuela, a newly created national park, Parque Nacional Santos Luzardo, provides protected habitat for the Orinoco crocodile. A recently declared wildlife refuge has also been established along the Guaritico River in western Venezuela. This area was the site of the first release of captive-bred crocodiles into the wild. Despite these protected areas, the Orinoco crocodile faces continued threats in Venezuela and Colombia as laws protecting it are not well enforced in either country.