Latin America & Caribbean

Venezuela's wildlife conservation sees mixed results

Baby crocodile
Image caption A privately-run breeding programme is aiming to conserve the Orinoco Crocodile

Young crocodiles cry plaintively for their mother as they are hooked in a trap and pulled, splashing frantically, from the water.

But their mother is nowhere to be seen.

These one-year-old Orinoco Crocodiles are part of a captive breeding programme designed to put the brakes on their slide towards extinction.

The Orinoco Crocodile (Crocodylus intermedius ) is the biggest in South America, present only in Venezuela and Colombia.

Researchers measure population by the number of adult females and say there are now around 100 in Venezuela, far fewer in Colombia.

"In the 1930s and 1940s they were over-exploited for their skin," said Omar Hernandez, director of Venezuela's Science Development Foundation.

"Now people are eating these crocodiles, they're hunting them for their meat."

The breeding programme, which each year sees around 200 young crocodiles released into the rivers of Venezuela's Llanos, or Great Plains, takes place on a private reserve about six hours drive from the capital Caracas.

Stalled programmes?

Over the years, state-run national parks have proved ineffective at preserving wildlife and the task fell to private ranchers who kept reserves and created ecotourism lodges.

Image caption The challenge is for productive farming to co-exist with conservation programmes

But now these reserves are an endangered species themselves.

Since 2006, three of the four farms which hosted biological research programmes have been expropriated by President Hugo Chavez's government, to the dismay of environmentalists.

"There is no way of knowing what is going on inside those farms now," says Mr Hernandez.

"At El Frio ranch, there was a crocodile breeding programme but we hear it is now closed and we don't know what is happening."

The expropriation of El Frio ranch was controversial. One of the biggest farms in the country, covering more than 60,000 hectares (nearly 150,000 acres), it was taken over by government troops in 2008.

It now goes by a different name - the Marisela Socialist Production Company.

Image caption Agricultural production has diversified on this ranch, officials say

My requests for permission to visit the ranch went unanswered by the Ministry of Agriculture but the government says the site, once a huge cattle ranch, now produces rice, beans, sorghum and maize as well as meat.

Large farms were traditionally the property of foreign investors or wealthy Venezuelan dynasties, often remaining in the hands of the same family for years.

That made them a natural target for President Chavez and his socialist Bolivarian Revolution which has a policy of redistribution of wealth.

Preservation

There are no official figures on how much agricultural land has been expropriated since 2005. Some estimates put it at about 2m hectares (nearly 5m acres).

But those who have benefited are grateful.

"Thanks to God, the revolution and Hugo Chavez, we grow our own maize, rice, oranges and papaya," said Miguel Angel Tovar, a former shoe shop assistant who was given 15 hectares of land after the government expropriated a large cattle ranch from the British company The Vestey Group.

Image caption Wildlife conservation: Challenges for private and state landowners

And at another expropriated farm, ecological programmes are continuing.

El Cedral, a 53,000 hectare ranch, keeps 90% of its land as a nature reserve while still raising cattle for meat and buffalo for dairy products.

Its ecotourism lodge remains open and continues to attract bird watchers who come to see the more than 300 species found at the ranch.

"Food production here is done in a responsible way. The land isn't given over to crops, the cows are not injected with steroids, they eat grass, it's very natural," says local guide Ramon Arbuja.

Attempting to show that preservation and production can live side by side, El Cedral is running a pilot programme alongside the Vietnamese government to investigate the use of fish as a pest control in rice paddies.

The approach at El Cedral seems to suggest that all is not lost for the wildlife of Los Llanos, but neither is its future guaranteed.

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