It’s nine o’clock at night and pitch black outside on the murky waters of the New River in northern Belize. An airboat carrying a group of tourists and two guides zips along, plowing through tall grasses and across marshy floodplains on this cool evening. The tourists, who sport noise-blocking headphones and life vests, anxiously follow the spotlight as one guide darts it from bank to bank across the dark expanse of river. After about a half hour, the boat slows, and the spotlight illuminates two shiny red dots beaming up from the shallow waters: The telltale eyes of a Morelet’s crocodile.

Tourists may go on Lamanai Outpost Lodge’s “Crocodile Encounter” for the thrill of watching guides spot, wrestle, and tag the river-dwelling reptiles in their natural habitat. But what many visitors don’t know is that the guides are also researchers, and profits from the adventure fund an ongoing project.

For the past five years, residents from Lamanai and scientists from the University of Florida have been tracking and monitoring the formerly endangered Morelet’s crocodiles. The mainly freshwater reptiles measure up to 14 feet, and are only found in Belize, Guatemala, and parts of Mexico. Researchers hope that the data they acquire will uncover more information about the creature, which scientists know little about. Ultimately, their findings will aid the Belize Forest Department, a government agency similar to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, in crafting a management plan for the croc—a scheme that might, ironically, legalize commercial exploitation of the animals.

Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife ecologist, first came to Belize to study crocodiles at the Forest Department’s request. The agency wanted to mitigate crocodile attacks on the expanding human population. Now, Mazzotti and other local researchers record data on Morelet’s crocodiles’ population sizes, distribution, habitats, nesting biology, and growth and survival. The information is shedding light on the elusive animals and will be the building blocks for creating a plan to manage their population.

In the 1960s, Morelet’s crocodile populations dipped dangerously low due to unregulated hunting for the skin trade.But because of increased conservation and protection under Belize’s Wildlife Ordinance of 1967 and Wildlife Protection Act of 1981, populations have since rebounded. Now that the crocs have made a comeback, the government must find a way to maintain the population so it doesn’t become endangered again.

“[Government officials] want to ensure that crocodiles continue to survive in the country and that they maximize human safety and safety for crocodiles,” Mazzotti says. “And certainly if it’s possible to commercially exploit crocodiles, like any developing country, they’d like to take advantage of that."

Officials at the Forest Department say they haven’t made any decisions yet about commercial exploitation, but it is something they will consider when developing a management plan. “What we are looking for is creating that proverbial human-croc ecological balance,” says Wilber Sabido, chief forest officer with the Forest Department. “While we are not closed to the idea of ranching or rearing, we have to ensure that these activities do not irreparably impact the natural populations." 

Commercial exploitation can range from harvesting the reptiles, establishing crocodile ranching, selling their meat and hides, or using them as an ecotourism attraction. And while the thought of putting a price on a formerly endangered animal may cause some conservationists to cringe, Mazzotti says that if done correctly, such schemes can actually help conserve a species.

“Having an economic value on the animal, it also puts an economic value on their habitat,” Mazzotti says. That, in turn, can lead people and officials to protect areas they might otherwise not. “Instead of getting converted to pasture for cattle or some other kind of use, habitats are kept in their natural state, providing not only a home for crocodiles, but a home for lots of other critters that live there as well."

The key to making commercial exploitation sustainable is proper management. Thirty years ago, Australia’s saltwater crocodile population dipped to less than 10,000. Today, Mazzotti says, they number more than 70,000, in part because of profit-producing schemes. However, poorly managed exploitation in South America and the Cayman Islands has had devastating effects on populations there.

“It depends on whether you can successfully enforce the regulations for exploitation,” Mazzotti says. “And if you can’t, you’re really opening the door for abuse."

For now, the first step is to learn enough about the crocodiles to know how to properly manage and protect them. To that end, Mazzotti employs the help of locals to track Morelet’s crocodiles using radio transmitters and monitor their health and growth.

Mauricio Aguilar, a master naturalist with Lamanai Outpost Lodge who grew up along the banks of the lagoon, helps collect data on the crocodiles.

“We hope to amass species-related knowledge for habitat conservation and also increase public awareness and appreciation of the species,” he says.

So far, researchers both in Belize and at the University of Florida have gleaned invaluable information on Morelet’s crocodiles. But as for possible new regulations on the reptile, that remains up to the government.

“My job as a scientist is to answer the scientific questions and certainly make them aware of the social issues,” Mazzotti says. “But that’s [whether or not to exploit them] really something that the Forest Department and the Belizeans have to decide for themselves."

Story by Sarah Parsons. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in March 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008