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From competition to cooperation
A win for the broad-snouted caiman
by Jeffrey P. Jorgenson, Ph.D.
Photo Credit: Alejandro Larriera
Conservation and economic development are often viewed as incompatible–there must be a clear winner and loser. In the case of conserving Argentina's broad-snouted caiman, however, quite the opposite is shown to be true. A conservation effort based on creating good will and generating economic incentives at the local level turned the tide for Argentina's once declining population of broad-snouted caimans. The recent reclassification of the broad-snouted caiman from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) may have put the final piece into this conservation puzzle.
Beginning in the 1940s, the broad-snouted caiman (Caiman latirostris) was hunted commercially for its high-quality leather. Historical records from just one province in Argentina document that between the 1940s and early 1990s more than 700,000 caimans were harvested for the skin trade, resulting in a significant decline in that population. Throughout their range, broad-snouted caiman populations experienced similar declines in number, mainly due to overharvest for commercial trade and the conversion of wetland habitat for agriculture.
National and international wildlife conservation officials noticed the decline and took action. In July 1975, the broad-snouted caiman was listed in Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). This action effectively prohibited international commercial trade in the broad-snouted caiman, including its parts and products. Soon thereafter, in June 1976, the broad-snouted caiman was listed as endangered under the ESA. This action effectively prohibited the import into or export from the U.S. of broad-snouted caiman specimens (live or dead), as well as their parts and products. Most other activities with this species were also prohibited unless a federal permit had been obtained.
Photo Credit: Ingo Arndt
Troubled by low numbers of broad-snouted caimans, as well as substantial reductions in natural wetland habitat, wildlife managers in Argentina began to mobilize, and in 1990 initiated Proyecto Yacaré, or Caiman Project. Proyecto Yacaré sought to create economic incentives for landowners and increase public awareness about the needs and benefits of conserving the broad-snouted caiman.
Under Argentine legislation, landowners are compensated for each broad-snouted caiman nest found on their property. When several nests are found on a ranch, as is usually the case, this compensation provides a significant economic incentive to local landowners to conserve the associated nest sites and natural wetlands. Wildlife managers also promote actions to conserve natural wetlands that caimans depend for prey, nest sites, and shelter.
Building on effective law enforcement and national wildlife legislation, the key to broad-snouted caiman management in Argentina is a successful captive-rearing program managed by local communities. As of 2010, there are seven caiman ranching programs registered with the Government of Argentina. Four of the programs raise broad-snouted caimans for commercial purposes, while three raise caimans for education purposes only. A total of 7,768 hatchlings were produced in Argentina in 2010, with about 75 percent of these caimans destined for commercial purposes. Overall, about 30,000 hatchlings have been released into the wild.
Under the captive-rearing program, wild eggs are removed from nests and moved to a nearby facility. After one year, some of the hatchlings – now larger and better able to defend themselves from natural predators – are returned to their original nest sites in the wild, where they will continue to grow in size and eventually reproduce. The remaining hatchlings are raised under controlled conditions in a series of tanks and ponds until they are large enough to be harvested.
The results of these actions in Argentina over the past 20 years have been outstanding, and today all indications suggest that the status of the wild broad-snouted caiman population continues to improve. Given the protected status of the broad-snouted caiman under the ESA and CITES, however, opportunities were limited for commercial interests in Argentina to reap economic benefits from international trade, especially with the U.S.
Photo Credit: Alba Imhof
In 1997, the Government of Argentina submitted a proposal under CITES to transfer the broad-snouted caiman population in Argentina from Appendix I to Appendix II, indicating that fewer protection measures are needed. This proposal documented significant improvements in the population status and trends of the broad-snouted caiman in Argentina, the elimination of illegal trade in that country, the implementation of effective domestic regulatory legislation, and the development of a successful ranching program based on regulated, captive-rearing facilities.
The proposal was adopted by the CITES Parties and the broad-snouted caiman was transferred to Appendix II, allowing international commercial trade provided it is legal and sustainable. Broad-snouted caiman populations in Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay were not transferred and remain listed in CITES Appendix I. While opening the door to international commercial trade of broad-snouted caiman specimens from Argentina, the CITES action did not address or change the species' endangered status under the ESA, and trade with the U.S. remained prohibited.
In 2007, the Government of Argentina requested that the broad-snouted caiman population in Argentina be reclassified from endangered to threatened under the ESA. After careful review and consideration, the proposal was accepted, and as of July 25, 2013, the broad-snouted caiman in Argentina, now identified as a distinct population segment, is listed as threatened. The Service also included the broad-snouted caiman in a special rule, allowing U.S. commerce in skins, other parts, and products of this species originating from Argentina, and re-export of such specimens originating in Argentina, if certain protective measures are met prior to exportation to the U.S.
The reclassification to threatened status of the broad-snouted caiman population in Argentina aligns U.S. domestic law with the view of the international community on trade in this population. This action also recognizes the efforts of wildlife managers and local communities in Argentina to conserve and sustainably manage a key wildlife resource in that country. While it has been a long process, the CITES transfer and ESA reclassification represent a conservation success story for the broad-snouted caiman, as well as the people of Argentina.
Jeffrey P. Jorgenson, Ph.D., a biologist in the Service's International Affairs Program headquartered in Arlington, VA, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-358-2348.
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