Scaling new depths with crocodile census

(Below, from left) Norhapiza and Muhamad Hazwan holding a replica of a crocodile at Pasir Gudang Estuarine Crocodile Sanctuary that is also known as Sarang Buaya Pasir Gudang.

A rewilding study is being conducted by Pasir Gudang Estuarine Crocodile Sanctuary to collect data on crocodiles in Johor.

Pasir Gudang City Council (MBPG) wildlife officer Dana Raj Shanmugam said the study was necessary because there was currently no population data on crocodiles in the peninsula.

“We are a bit behind Sabah and Sarawak in terms of crocodile habitat and conservation; their populations are stable, but here, we have no data.

“This is why we are conducting this rewilding study in Johor,” he said.

He stressed that the study should be done in all major cities in the country, especially areas impacted by large-scale development that has encroached into their natural habitats.

Crocodile keeper Muhammad Azlan Syah A Aziz feeding Hitam, the largest crocodile at the sanctuary.Crocodile keeper Muhammad Azlan Syah A Aziz feeding Hitam, the largest crocodile at the sanctuary.

He said that some of these natural habitats were near rivers and the study would identify which rivers still had crocodile populations.

“For the past 20 years, major rivers in Terengganu, Perak and Penang, and even Sungai Klang in Selangor have been impacted by massive development.

“But there has been no study on what happens to the animals in those areas, especially the entire ecosystem and food chain, when there are no longer apex predators around,” he noted.

“In Johor, we have managed to restore the crocodile habitat in Sungai Batu Pahat after the state government placed a log boom to stop waste from flowing downstream.

“But what about rivers in other places?” asked Dana Raj.

He said the study was expected to take about three years to complete and only then, an attempt could be made to introduce the crocodiles from the sanctuary to the wild.

Muhammad Akhma says visiting the sanctuary is a fun experience for families.Muhammad Akhma says visiting the sanctuary is a fun experience for families.“This is part of our long-term plan to rehabilitate the crocodile population in the wild.”

He said guidelines needed to be drawn up on how to release the crocodiles into the wild.

“This study will take time because we need to ensure that the saltwater crocodiles no longer depend on humans for food.

“All the crocodiles in our sanctuary have grown up thinking that food comes from us.

“So, we need time to rewild them to the saltwater habitats before we can release them,” said Dana Raj at the sanctuary’s World Croc Day celebration.

World Croc Day, which is observed on June 17, shines a light on the issue of endangered crocodiles.

That said, however, the saltwater crocodile is not on the endangered list.

Dana Raj said that once the study was completed, the next phase would involve location study and data collection to ensure the guidelines were effective.

Dana Raj says the crocodiles need to be rewilded before being released.Dana Raj says the crocodiles need to be rewilded before being released.“It is a lengthy process, but it must be done.

“We have worked with international universities to conduct these studies in the hope of gathering holistic data.

“We are a bit behind other developed countries in this field, but with continuous support from the state government, we can close this gap,” he added.

When asked whether the sanctuary has any authority to release crocodiles into the wild, Dana Raj said that the power laid solely with Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan).

“We are just scientists conducting research on the crocodile population.

“Any decision to release the crocodiles back into the wild can only be made by Perhilitan.

Muhammad Daniel says every year, the crocodile keepers undergo a retraining course.Muhammad Daniel says every year, the crocodile keepers undergo a retraining course.“To release these crocodiles back into the wild, there must be a study first to ensure we do not cause inbreeding, which would destroy the genetic diversity of the animals.

“We need to ensure that those we keep are not related to the ones in the wild,” he said, adding that this was also part of the rewilding studies being conducted.

Snapshots of sanctuary life

The sanctuary in Tanjung Langsat was initially set up to educate the local community about crocodiles in Malaysia.

It currently has more than 200 saltwater crocodiles (buaya tembaga) of various ages, all tagged with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, said Dana Raj.

“All except for crocodiles that are less than a year old.

“Even if we release them, we can still identify where they came from, which pair of crocodiles bred them, and maintain their health records,” he added.

A week-old crocodile hatched at Pasir Gudang Estuarine Crocodile Sanctuary.A week-old crocodile hatched at Pasir Gudang Estuarine Crocodile Sanctuary.

According to crocodile keeper Ahmad Norhapiza Bashri, who has worked at the sanctuary for 14 years, there are 86 adult crocodiles in the 3.23ha park, all over 25 years old.

“The oldest crocodile we have is called ‘Hitam’ or ‘Pak Tam’, which weighs about 700kg and is about 5m in length.

“He is around 46 or 47 years old and is currently the king or alpha male of this sanctuary, followed by two other male crocodiles called Comot and Degil.

“Comot and Degil are about 10 years younger than Hitam.

“Comot’s tail end was bitten off by Hitam, while Degil lost his right arm when Hitam bit it off,” he said.

Norhapiza added that all the adult crocodiles were fed daily, while the hatchlings and juveniles were fed at least once every two weeks, depending on size.

To ensure the safety of both the animals and humans there, MBPG consulting veterinarian Muhammad Daniel Felix Abdullah said the crocodile keepers were trained to handle the reptiles.

“Every year, they undergo a retraining course under the Malaysian Association of Zoological Parks (Mazpa) on how to handle all types of animals.

“For crocodiles, the most important period is the mating season between April and June.

“The female crocodiles lay eggs between August and September and incubate them for about 90 days before we see hatchlings,” he added.

Patsarin suggests the sanctuary organise more crocodile shows to attract visitors.Patsarin suggests the sanctuary organise more crocodile shows to attract visitors.Visitor views

For first-time visitor Muhammad Akhma Norhasim, 31, he hopes that more people will come and discover the reptile at the sanctuary.

“Compared to visiting a zoo, this is the only place where we can see so many crocodiles and each one is very large.

“It is a fun experience for families, especially children, as there is also a mini petting zoo containing other reptiles,” he said.

Muhammad Akhma, who is from Pahang, said he found out about the sanctuary while looking for a place to spend time with his family on holiday.

“Seeing this animal up close is unforgettable and I hope the city council continues this effort.

“It is the only way to protect these animals from extinction and preserve them for future generations,” he added.

Another visitor, Patsarin Sonsrison, 31, from Thailand, hopes the sanctuary will organise more crocodile shows to attract more visitors.

Crocodiles cooling off at Pasir Gudang Estuarine Crocodile Sanctuary. — Photos: THOMAS YONG/The StarCrocodiles cooling off at Pasir Gudang Estuarine Crocodile Sanctuary. — Photos: THOMAS YONG/The Star

“In Thailand, the crocodile sanctuaries have demonstrations showing interactions between the keepers and the animals.

“Here, we can only see how they catch and feed the crocodiles; most of the large ones are submerged in the pool, so we don’t see many of them.

“It would be nice if they could do something similar to the show in Thailand.

“I think it will attract more visitors, especially from Singapore,” she said.

Patsarin said this was her second visit to the sanctuary and she had also been to the crocodile farm in Teluk Sengat, Kota Tinggi.

“I still prefer coming here because it is larger and closer to home,” she said.

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Crocodile , Wildlife , Pasir Gudang


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