Crocodiles were once so abundant along the rim of southern Jamaica that images of their toothy jaws and spiny armour crown the tropical island's coat of arms and are stencilled on the bumpers of military vehicles.

Now the big reptiles are difficult to spot, and not just because they blend into swampy backgrounds. These days a growing taste for crocodile meat and eggs in Jamaica has conservationists worried 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.

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 appeared dire on the island as the impact of habitat loss deepened with a "new demand for crocodile meat, both for personal consumption and for local market distribution".


The poaching has become so bad in Jamaica that a passionate reptile enthusiast, Lawrence Henriques, has set up a crocodile sanctuary and captive rearing programme just outside a tiny northern mountain town called Cascade, far from the animals' southern habitat, as insurance against future loss.

His facility's fenced pens and ponds hold about 45 grey-green crocs, including one nearly 3.3m long and nicknamed "Stumpy" because of a severed tail. Nearby, opening its big jaws to display sharp interlocking teeth, a nearly 2.4m female dubbed "Doris" basks in her new home. Last month, Henriques rescued her in southern St Thomas parish after her mate was fatally shot in the head.

"It's very worrying that so many people just have no regard for the laws protecting these animals," he said, speaking over a forest symphony of insects in his croc retreat, which has a sign warning rare visitors that they enter at their own risk.

Henriques said some poachers used baited shark hooks to bag crocs, mostly sub-adults measuring about 2m long. People in St Thomas also reportedly dig up eggs after nesting females deposit them on beaches.

Croc meat appears to be a specialty high-end business in Jamaica, with wealthy private buyers willing to pay up to US$35 ($42) per half kilogram. Some of the meat stays in rural towns with secret crocodile-eating parties drawing men who insist it enhances sexual virility. "It's totally underground and people keep it very hush-hush," said Sharlene Rowe, a conservation officer with the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation, who has seen carcasses with tails chopped off floating down the Salt River in southern Clarendon parish. The animals mostly live among tangled mangrove roots in places such as the Black River. Tour boat operators take tourists along the river to gape at crocs accustomed to circling the boats, lured by the promise of chicken meat.

Compared to its fearsome cousins in Africa and Australia, the "American crocodile" species found in Jamaica is mostly reclusive. But mature adults are very big and during breeding season can be aggressive if they feel threatened. Three Jamaicans have been killed by crocs since the 1980s.

Nobody is being punished for hunting crocodiles, which is adding to the activity's spread.

Even in the best of times, wildlife enforcement in Jamaica ranges from lax to nonexistent, and state agencies are dogged by a lack of financing, with scarce resources to do the investigations needed to catch crocodile poachers.


- AP