Despite its somewhat sinister appearance, the Chinese alligator is actually a gentle creature. It’s also an endangered species.
One place where it is still thriving is the Dongtan Wetland Park on Chongming Island off Shanghai’s coast. There, visitors can sometimes spot this elusive creature in waterways, floating with nostrils peeking above the waterline.
Recently, I visited the park’s wildlife conservation station in the hopes of catching a glimpse of these local reptiles for myself.
After arriving in the afternoon, I stopped at the park’s Earthquake Pavilion, which includes a seismic monitoring station and an exhibition of local geological records. Outside the pavilion, I spotted my first alligator quite quickly as it floated along in the water.
The Chinese alligator is not a particularly active species. Like many other cold-blooded animals, they spend most of their time motionless in the water, which helps regulate their body temperature during the hot summer.
Occasionally, they will dive in pursuit of fish, shrimp or clams. They are also known to eat frogs when available.
As the sun began to fall, I went to an area of the park known as Que Ming Du. Here, one can find a tiny lake-bound island covered with reeds and marsh grass. One can often spot alligators on this island, although tourists who pass in rented boats often miss them.
The lake itself is shallow and only about one-meter deep. After paddling to the center of the lake, I swung to the back side of the island.
Since alligators prey mostly in the evening, I decided to stick around in the boat until night descended. I listened to the sound of cicadas and birds as it grew dark and mosquitoes started to gather around the boat.
Finally, one alligator emerged from the water with its head poking just above the surface. It swam a few meters, submerging from time to time. It was soundless as it moved through the water. It also seemed to pay no heed to the boat that drifted only a few meters away.
The animal never strayed far from the island, probably to guard its nest.
At night, alligators can easily be seen in the water because their eyes reflect flashlight beams and shine like small lights.
As for me though, I only saw one alligator in the lake that night.
Members of the species are scattered around the waters of the park. Although their exact numbers are unknown, it is estimated that two or three dozen alligators could live in Dongtan, with new alligators born every year.
The alligator is one of the oldest animals on earth, a relic of Oligocene epoch 37 million years ago. Today there are only two living species left: the American alligator and the Chinese alligator.
The Chinese species, also known as the Yangtze alligator, is smaller than its American cousin. Its ancestors were terrestrial, but the species evolved as the environment changed, adapting to life in the water.
Whereas the American alligator remains prevalent, the Chinese alligator is on the list of critically endangered species. Populations have decreased as wetlands were lost to agricultural development and human activity — including the killing the reptiles for their meat and for medicinal purposes.
To save the reptiles, breeding centers have been created.
In 1979, Xuancheng City in Anhui Province established a breeding farm. In 1983 it was renamed the Anhui Research Center for Chinese Alligator Reproduction, and it was registered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. More than 10,000 Chinese alligators now live at the farm.
Another major breeding center is the Changxing Nature Reserve and Breeding Center for Chinese Alligators in Zhejiang Province.
The armor-plated Chinese alligator was once quite prevalent in Shanghai waterways. The 326-square-kilometer Dongtan is the only large wetland in the Yangtze River to retain its natural state, making it an ideal habitat for Chinese alligators.
In June 2007, six Chinese alligators were released in the Dongtan Wetland Park, tagged with radio transmitters for tracking and research. Three were from the breeding center in Zhejiang; two were from the US, to improve genetic diversity. Two of the alligators subsequently died in accidents. The remaining four settled in and began reproducing. Fences prevent the alligators from slipping into other waterways, where they might be harmed.
Last month, another six Chinese alligators were released in the park.
Where and how to look
Dongtan Wetland Park is perhaps best known for birdwatching. But the alligators, though harder to find, are a bonus for visitors.
The ideal times for alligator spotting are spring, summer and autumn. The reptiles hibernate during the cold winter months.
The wetland area around the Dongtan Earthquake Pavilion in the south of the park is a good idea to search for alligators. They often stay close to the reeds. You have to be patient in looking for those nostrils just above water. Sometimes the alligators dive and reappear moments later.
The alligators usually forage for food in the evening. Their favorite diet is fish, snails, water rats and turtles. The park, which is not normally open to the public in the evenings, has organized some night tours for alligator watching. It’s often easier to spot alligators after dark because their eyes reflect flashlight beams.
By day, Que Ming Du provides rental boats to visitors. Each boat can seat up to five people. The small lake in the southeast corner of the park has a small island in the middle where some alligators are nested.
Chinese alligators are not aggressive and are shy around humans, but it’s still necessary to keep a safe distance. The reptiles breed in summer and can become aggressive if they perceive a threat to their nests.
ABOUT the Chinese alligator
SCIENTIFIC name: Alligator sinensis 扬子鳄
The Chinese alligator is much smaller than the American alligator. Most Chinese alligators measure only one-and-a-half to two meters in length and weigh around 40 kilograms.
The species is fully armored, even on its belly, which is not a common trait in the crocodile family. It has a flat head, strong limbs and a long tail used for both swimming and self-defense.
The alligators live in fresh water and have large appetites, especially ahead of their winter hibernation periods.
The Chinese alligator breeds in the summer. Mating happens in June, and females will build nests in July using weeds, twigs and mud. Each clutch contains 10 to 30 eggs. The female alligator guards the nest, and the eggs incubate in natural temperatures, hatching after 60 days. The sex of the offspring is determined by the temperature in the nest.
An alligator egg is greyish in color and slightly larger than a chicken’s. The young have orange and red stripes on their bodies, which fade as they mature.
Alligator young have a high mortality rate because of predators, especially birds like the egret. Other alligators may also predate on the young.
Facts you may not know
The Chinese alligator is the smallest member of the crocodile family, measuring only about 1 to 2 meters.
The Siamese crocodile is medium sized, with adults measuring 3 to 4 meters in length.
The saltwater crocodile is the largest of all crocodile species. Adult males generally grow to around five meters, while females are much smaller.
The saltwater crocodile and Siamese crocodile are broad-snouted species. The saltwater crocodile has a wider snout and longer muzzle, while the Chinese alligator is a short-snouted species.
The Chinese alligator is fully armored with hard scales found around the entire body, from nose to tail. Even its eyelids have bony plates under the skin.
The saltwater crocodile has oval shaped scales, while scutes (bony external plates) are small.
The Siamese crocodile lacks occipital scales and scutes.
The Chinese alligator and Siamese crocodile are critically endangered species, though breeding in captivity has been successful.
The Siamese crocodile population in the wild declined due to overharvesting for skin as well as habitat loss.
The saltwater crocodile is not an endangered species.
The saltwater crocodile is aggressive and has a long history of attacking humans. They are strong and deadly, and it’s almost impossible to survive a direct predatory attack. It also has the strongest bite of any animal.
The Siamese crocodile does not pose a threat to humans, but will attack if they are provoked.