20080318-alligator tooter for kids.jpg Chinese alligators can average six or seven feet in length, about half their American counterparts. They are known in China as "tu long," or earth dragon, and may have inspired the dragon myth. They were once found throughout the lakes and rivers in the lower Yangtze basin but now are only found in small area in Zhejiang Province about a hundred miles west of Shanghai. [Source: Carol Kaesuk Yoon, New York Times, August 21, 2001]

Chinese alligators live in a colder climate than other crocodilians and are the only crocodilians that hibernate. They usually hibernate in the winter in complex networks of burrows on the banks of their ponds.

Chinese alligators are regarded as relatively mild mannered and non-threatening. They prefer living in lowland wetlands but because of development have so few places these days to live they have begun moving to forests and the slopes of hills, which are not suitable for burrowing. Adults can survive in these places buts eggs and young alligators often die if the weather gets too cold.

Websites and Resources Chinese Alligator Crocodilain Species List ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ; Giant Salamander Amphibiaweb ; ARKive arkive,org ; River Dolphin Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ;

On Wild Animals in China: Living National Treasures: China ; Animal Info ; ARKive (do a Search for China or the Animal Species You Want) Animal Picture Archives (do a Search for the Animal Species You Want) animalpicturesarchive Endangered Animals in China ; Animals Asia Campaign to Help Animals ; Plants in China: Flora of China ; Plant Meaning and Symbolism Chinatown Connection


Endangered Chinese Alligators

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Mother and young
The Chinese alligator is the most endangered crocodilian in the world and may become the first crocodilian species to become extinct in the wild in historical times. In the old days there were hundreds of thousands of them, perhaps millions. Today only around 100 or 200 are left in the wild.

In 2001 researchers attempted to make an accurate count of the alligators by going around at night and looking for the reflective eyes of alligators with flashlights. They counted only 23. The last survivors live among villagers in rice paddies and ponds. One of the largest groups, with 11 members, lives in a pond near a video store.

Much of the alligators original habitat has been lost to rice cultivation and fish farming. Thirteen reserves have been set up for them but on these reserves you are more likely to find farmers, ducks and water buffalo than alligators. The farmers who live near the alligators are not thrilled about their presence and have little interest in protecting them. The alligators often eat their ducks and fish.

Captive Chinese Alligators

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New alligator home
Chinese alligator do quite well in captivity. More than 10,000 of them live at the Anhui Research Center for Chinese Alligator Reproduction near Xuancheng, China. Between 500 and 2,000 alligators are born there every year using artificial insemination. Many of these alligators are harvested for the meat, which is believed to make people live long and bring other health benefits. Alligator and meat is particularly popular in southern China.

Captive-bred alligators have been reintroduced do the wild in a couple of carefully selected sites. Three young adults were released into a dammed up area, where a well-established population of three to five alligators lives. The newcomers made themselves at home with relative ease, within months a female newcomer had reproduced. It was not clear whether the father was a newcomer or an established alligator.

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome is getting farmers to accept having alligators in their neighborhood. Scientists are trying get them to take pride in having the source of the dragon symbol in their backyard.

Crocodile Farms in China

In the mid-1990s, China's forestry department eliminated duties on the import of breeding crocodiles as way of develop a crocodile leather and meat industry to provide jobs for farmers losing their land. Over the past decade China has imported tens of thousands of crocodiles from Thailand, accompanied by Thai handlers, to get the industry going in southern China.

The crocodile industry in China has suffered a number of setbacks. The crocodiles from Thailand have had trouble adapting to the slightly cooler temperatures of southern China and often don't like the food that is served them. The biggest problem is that the males tend to overeat and become sluggish in the autumn and winter and have no interest in sex when the breeding season rolls around in the spring. Success in crocodile farming means having lots of breeding crocodiles producing new sources of meat and leather.

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giant salamander
The cool temperatures at night make the crocodiles more likely to get sick and paying for antibiotics and other medicines and injecting them as they sit in pools is expensive and labor-intensive. The crocodiles also didn't like the ducks and fish from local ponds they have been given. They prefer more expensive chicken. To make matters worse the Thais who sold the Chinese the crocodiles slipped in a lot overaged males and females who were too old to reproduce.

Crocpark Guangzhou is the world's largest crocodile farm with 60,000 to 70,000 animals. In 1997 and 1998, taking advantage of low prices caused by the Asian financial crisis, it bought 40,000 crocodiles for as little as 75 cents a piece. The crocodiles, ranging in size from a few centimeters to six feet, filled the holds of five 747 cargo jets. The park loses money because it can't get the crocodiles to breed. To make money it has opened its doors to tourists who pay $1.25 for a bamboo pole with two chicken torsos attached to them to feed to the crocodiles.

Giant Salamanders in China

The Chinese giant salamander is the largest of all amphibians They are rare and found in the Qingshui and Wuyang rivers in central Guizhou. Sometimes referred to as dragons because of their strange-looking exterior gills, they can weigh up to 66 pounds. Locals call them "baby fish" because they make a noise that sounds like a crying baby. What are the locals doing to preserve to these rare animals? Eating them of course.

The spiny newt of China can produce poison instantly by forcing its ribs outwards with such force that it causes the skin to break and release poison from the poison glands under the skin.

Giant salamanders are bred in large numbers under license for human consumption in China.

Japanese Salamanders and Chinese Salamanders

The Japanese giant salamander can reach lengths of over a meter and can live almost 100 years. It almost as big as the Chinese giant salamander, the world’s largest amphibian, which reach lengths of a meter and a half. Japanese giant salamanders live mainly in rivers in central and western parts of Honshu as well as Shikoku and Kyushu. They used be hunted for food and traditional Asian medicines but now are protected by law, having been designated a special natural monument in 1952.

Chinese giant salamanders and Japanese giant salamanders are very difficult to tell part. Before an international ban on trade of these salamanders came into effect many Chinese giant salamanders---which are raised in farms in China for human consumption---were imported live to Japan for food. One dealer in Okayama obtained 800 of them for sale to restaurants. Some of those that were imported escaped or were released and have interbred with the Japanese species and competed with them for nesting sites and food.

Many of the Japanese giant salamanders seen in rivers in central and western Japan are actually Chinese giant salamanders, which biologists regard as threat to their Japanese cousins. DNA analysis of giant salamanders caught in the wild reveal that many are Chinese not Japanese, with some Chinese ones even showing up in the Tokyo area. One 140-centimeter Chinese giant salamander in the 1990s in Saitama Prefecture’s Arakawa River is still alive and is the largest salamander in captivity in Japan.

Freshwater Dolphins in China

The baiji, a freshwater dolphin species, is the rarest and most endangered of all whale, porpoise of dolphin species. It lives on a 1,000-mile stretch of the Yangtze river between the mouth of the river and the Three Gorges. They have traditionally been viewed by some as "the Goddess of Chang Jiang" and are a good omen to any fisherman who spots one.

Baijis, also known as white flag dolphins or Yangtze river dolphins, weigh between 300 and 500 pounds and reach a length of 8.5 feet. They have a long snout and small eyes and have white sides and a pale blue grayish back. They feed primarily on fish, which they locate with sonar since they are nearly blind.

Baijis can live to be 25 to 30 years of age. They stay under water for an average of 20 seconds and can dive for up to two minutes. They are usually found in pairs or social units of 10 or so members. Some scientists regard them as a subspecies of Irrawaddy fresh water dolphin.

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There are four generally recognized species of freshwater dolphin. The Irrawaddy fresh water dolphin is found in the Mekong River in Laos and Cambodia, the Mahakam River in Kalimantan in Indonesia, and the Yangtze in China. They were once found in the Chao Praya River, which flows through Bangkok, but haven't been seen there in decades (See Laos). The three other live in the Ganges in India, the Indus in Pakistan and the Amazon in South America.

For millions of years river dolphins have inhabited the Yangtze. The first are believed to have migrated up the Yangtze 20 million years ago.

River Dolphin Sonar

River dolphins are nearly blind. They have very small eyes. Indus and Ganges dolphins even lack lenses and can do little more than distinguish light and dark and night and day. The water they swim in is often so muddy that even if the could see they could only see a few inches in front of them.

In the sea, dolphins use their echolocation primarily to locate and catch fish. River dolphins use it primarily to navigate through the murky water so they can sweep for fish. They swim on their sides and sweep their long bony snouts in wide arcs across the river bottom, emitting long trains of echolocation clicks that let them hunt fish in all but opaque waters."

See Dolphin Echolocation, Sea

Endangered Freshwater Dolphins in China

As of the 1990s only 100 or so baijis remained in the wild. Their number had declined from 6,000 in the 1950s to 400 in the 1980s to 150 in 1993 to 100 in 1995. At that point their future didn't look good: they live in one of the world's most densely populated areas and had a large part of their natural habitat gobbled up by the Three Gorges Dam project. Experts estimated that species would probably be extinct within 10 to 15 years.

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A survey of baiji in 1997 found 13 of them. A four boat survey in 1999 counted four. A pair was seen in Hongpu Lake in July 2005. A sighting was recorded in the summer of 2006. The last one captivity died in 2002.

The baiji is now regarded as "functionally" extinct. A five-week survey in 2006 conducted by 30 scientists over 1,700 kilometers of the Yangtze, using sophisticated viewing equipment and ultra-sensitive microphones failed to locate a single one. August Pfluger, a Swiss researcher and leader of the survey told the Washington Post, "It is possible that there are two or three that we missed somehow but functionally they are extinct. It is finished. This is very, very, sad."If they are extinct they are first species of whale dolphin, or porpoise to be made extinct by man.

A Chinese man videotaped a baiji swimming in the Yangtze River in the summer of 2007. The man was quoted Reuters as saying, "I never saw such a bg thing in the water before so filmed it." He said he was about one kilometer away and it jumped several times.

Baiji have mainly been done in the last two or three decades by sewage and pollution dumped into the Yangtze and noise created by ship propellers which disrupt their sonar-based sensory system, making it difficult for them to find food and navigate through the river's murky waters. They have also been trapped in nets, hurt by boats dragging the river bottom and injured by motor boats. The fish they feed have been overfished with large nets. Many baiji have been snagged on rolling hooks, illegal fishing devices consisting of braided lines with a hundred or more hooks hanging off them.

Efforts to Save Freshwater Dolphins in China

20080318-baiji -dolphin-extinct_170 env news.jpg An effort is being made to set up a sanctuary for the dolphins in a 13-mile-long oxbow lake, 150 miles upriver from Wuhan. For several months a year, the lake floods and is replenished with fish from the Yangtze River. So far this effort has been less than successful. The first dolphin placed in the sanctuary died after it got tangled in a net that separated the reserve from the river. After this construction began on a concrete barrier that didn't endanger the dolphins but allowed water and fish to flow in.

The leader of the save-the-baiji movement is Wang Ding, the director of river dolphin research at China's Institute of Hydrobiology and leader of the Wuhan Baiji Conversation Foundation. To save the dolphins and make the public aware of their plight, statues of the animals have been erected and a local brewery even introduced Baijitun beer.

There is also a species of river porpoise: the finless porpoise. In 1993 2,700 lived in the Yangtze. Less than 1,000 live there now according to an expedition in 2006. So they don't go the same way as the baiji and colony of 30 of them has been established in nature preserve, far from the polluted river. The hope is that they will reproduce.

Divisions over how best to conserve rare animals partly contributed to the demise of the baiji because foreign and Chinese zoologists were unable to agree on whether it should be taken to a reserve or looked after better in its natural environment. Reserves were set up for the baiji and laws and regulations were enacted to help them. But these reserves existed largely in name only and the laws were not enforced.

Image Sources: 1) Kostich; 2) Wild Alliance; 3) AAPA; 4) Tooter for Kids; 5, 6) China Alligator Fund; 7) Blogspot; 8, 9) China Science Academy; 10 Environmental News11) CNTO

Text Sources: CNTO, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2010

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