By William Neuman and Paula Ramon
MANTECAL, Venezuela — Stealing the eggs from an enraged, 10-foot crocodile is a delicate operation.
“If you don’t have your guard up, this crocodile can jump out of the water onto the sand, and in the same motion she can catch you,” said Luis Rattia, 37, who runs a hatchery at the government-owned El Frío ranch, part of a sputtering effort to save the Orinoco crocodile, the largest predator in South America, from extinction.
There were once millions of Orinoco crocodiles living along the banks of the great river, which gave them their name, and its tributaries in Venezuela and eastern Colombia.
But the fearsome animals were nearly done in by fashion. They were hunted almost to extermination from the 1920s to the 1950s to feed a worldwide demand for crocodile-skin boots, coats, handbags and other items. Today, biologists estimate that there are only about 1,500 Orinoco crocodiles left in the wild, nearly all of them in Venezuela.
The El Frío ranch, which was expropriated by Venezuela’s government in 2009, represents the hopes and the frustrations of conservationists who have worked to save the animal for years, often at cross purposes with a government that frequently views them with suspicion. Thanks in part to that disconnect, efforts to save the animal suffer from a lack of coordination and money, imperiling their already limited success.
“A properly defined program with funding and objectives doesn’t exist,” said Omar Hernández, the director of an environmental foundation called Fudeci. “The animal is in critical danger.”
When the naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt traveled through the Venezuelan plains in 1800, he found crocodiles lining the riverbanks, with the largest males measuring up to 24 feet long.
José Gumilla, an 18th-century priest who wrote a natural history of the Orinoco, told of the fear the huge crocodile inspired. “It is ferocity itself,” he wrote, “the crude offspring of the greatest monstrosity, the horror of every living thing; so formidable that if a crocodile were to look in a mirror it would flee trembling from itself.”
It is easy to see what Father Gumilla was talking about. On another government-run ranch near El Frío, a large crocodile lay in the shallows of a rushing stream one recent evening, its eyes nearly shut, its mouth open in what looked like a cruel smile. With a scaly dragon’s back; spiky tail; long, white teeth; and fat, wormlike belly, it seemed like something out of a myth. Suddenly, it moved with lightning quickness, thrashing its tail and gorging on a fish that swam within range of its snapping jaws. More....