By David McFadden
Crocodiles were once so abundant along the salty rim of southern Jamaica that images of their toothy jaws and spiny armor crown the tropical island's coat of arms and are stenciled on the bumpers of military vehicles.
Now, the big reptiles are increasingly difficult to spot, and not just because they blend into swampy backgrounds. These days, a growing taste for crocodile meat and even eggs in Jamaica has conservationists worried that the reptiles might be wiped from the wild altogether, although they've been protected by law since 1971.
"I went from never hearing about anyone eating crocodile meat, much less crocodile eggs, to hearing about it all the time. There's just so much carnage going on," said Byron Wilson, a reptile specialist at Jamaica's University of the West Indies.
Crocs have steadily reclaimed their range in Florida, their only U.S. habitat, after rebounding from the edge of extinction. But experts believe the reptiles may be reaching a tipping point in economically struggling Jamaica. A recent newsletter from the Crocodile Specialist Group, a global network involved in croc conservation, said the situation appears dire on the island as the impact of habitat loss deepens with a "new demand for crocodile meat, both for personal consumption and for local market distribution."
The poaching problem has gotten so bad in Jamaica that a passionate reptile enthusiast, Lawrence Henriques, has set up a crocodile sanctuary and captive rearing program just outside a tiny northern mountain town called Cascade, far from the animals' southern habitat, as insurance against future loss. He also hopes to educate islanders who revile them or want to barbecue them. More....