The Comeback Croc

Once heavily hunted for its valuable skin but now protected, Brazil’s yacare caiman is striding back in gratifying numbers.

This story appears in the July 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

If you noticed them at all, they’d look like nothing more than tiny, windblown seeds floating amid the rushes at the edge of a lagoon in Brazil’s remote interior. Wait until dark, when the vast conspiratorial hush of the wetlands gives way to a chorus of chirpings and rustlings, and those little specks begin to slip away, vanishing in the murk.

These tiny dots are the watchful eyes of baby yacare caimans, members of the crocodilian family, barely two weeks old and scarcely longer than a pencil. By day they hide among aquatic grasses, concealed from herons or storks who might swoop in for a quick snack. By night they slip away to feast on insects and snails, graduating to bigger fare as they grow bigger themselves. Given time and opportunity, they can reach eight feet and be powerful enough to capture a capybara, one of the area’s giant rodents. But that’s all in the future. For now they are near the bottom of the pecking order, just trying to keep out of sight.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of these hatchling caimans lurk in this one lagoon. And there are many more such lagoons in the Pantanal. This enormous flowering wetland along the Paraguay River in southwestern Brazil is not only home to what is probably Earth’s largest crocodilian population but also the setting for one of conservation’s great comeback stories.

Thirty years ago the yacare caiman appeared to be heading for oblivion, ruthlessly hunted to supply a lucrative market for crocodilian leather. Their numbers dropped alarmingly.

“Nobody can say for sure how many yacares were slaughtered, but it would have run well into the millions,” says Cleber Alho, a conservation biologist with Brazil’s University Anhanguera-Uniderp in Mato Grosso do Sul, who did much of his fieldwork in the Pantanal during the height of the poaching era in the 1980s.

Armed gangs would invade during the dry season and shoot masses of yacares congregated around shrinking water holes. “They skinned them on the spot and left the rest to the vultures,” Alho says. “I used to come upon piles of dead yacares rotting on the embankments. Fieldwork in those days wasn’t just depressing, it was dangerous as well, since the coureiros—the leather men—could be extremely aggressive.” A Brazilian government crackdown on poaching and a 1992 global ban on the trade of wild crocodilian skins eased the pressure on the beleaguered yacare population. The crocs themselves did the rest. After a string of intense rainy seasons—ideal for breeding—caiman numbers rebounded dramatically. As many as ten million yacare caimans are estimated to live in the wetlands today.

Even so, the yacare caiman is not yet out of the mire, warns Alho. “The thriving population in the Pantanal threatens to mask the problems the species is facing elsewhere in South America, where poaching continues and populations are vanishing.” Within the Pantanal itself, threats still loom: deforestation, dams, tourism, mining, seaport development. But for now at least, in the steamy aftermath of another bountiful wet season, the kings of the Pantanal seem secure on their throne.