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Building on an International Partnership

ABQ BioPark staff return to Abidjan zoo, go to the field for the first time to work with wild crocodiles.

May 30, 2018 - This spring, the ABQ BioPark returned to Zoo National d’Abidjan for the fifth time since since starting a partnership to help save the critically endangered West African slender-snouted crocodile in 2014.

ABQ BioPark staff members Matt Eschenbrenner, Katie Anderson, Chaz Moxley and Adam Clark made the trip to the Ivory Coast in late April. This year, for the first time since the beginning of the partnership, the team went into the field to help crocodile conservationist and Project Mecistops founder Matt Shirley evaluate and count wild crocodiles. The crew drove about 200 miles to Tai National Park near Liberia. Although not too far, the trip took about 15 hours because of primitive roads. They spent two days in the field.

Tai National Park is the largest and best-preserved remnant of West Africa’s Upper Guinea rainforest. The region is recognized as a biodiversity hotspot. Tai is also the one of the few remaining strongholds for West African slender-snouted crocodiles. About 65 percent of the wild population is found in either Tai or Comoé National Park, located on the opposite end of the country near Ghana and Burkina Faso.

During the day, BioPark staff had the opportunity to go on a rainforest hike. Once night crept in, they ventured out to look for crocs in the river. To spot a crocodile in the dark, team members scanned the water using their headlamps to look for little “candles” in the river—the crocodiles’ eyes.

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This was Eschenbrenner’s first wild crocodile capture. “That was probably one of the most fun things I’ve done in my life,” he said.

Anderson, a senior reptile keeper at the zoo, agreed. “There’s no bigger adrenaline rush than catching a wild crocodile,” she said. “That was one of the best experiences of my life. It was really a career defining moment.”

That first night, which wrapped up around 2:30 a.m., staff collected blood samples for four wild crocodiles. The second night was a bit harder. “By then, I think the crocs were on to us,” Eschenbrenner said.

The work ABQ BioPark staff did in the field will be added to the data pool for this little-known crocodile, and other scientists will benefit from the information. Crocodiles were released back into the water after staff gathered important data on this endangered species.

“When it comes to central and west Africa, there aren’t a lot of boots on the ground,” Eschenbrenner said, adding that the data they collected is “new and groundbreaking” for this species and can be used to set baseline guidelines for captive crocodiles.  

ABQ BioPark personnel still spent the majority of their time at the Zoo—six days total—testing all the juvenile slender-snouted crocodiles along with many adults, and some dwarf crocodiles. Clark continued his work with the crocodile habitat water filter, which needed a few minor repairs and leaks fixed. Staff also got the opportunity to help advise a visiting veterinarian on different animals.

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“For me, that was a very fulfilling experience to put my knowledge to use,” said Anderson.

Staff also attended the wedding of one of the Abidjan zoo staff members, a testament to the growing bond between staff at the two zoos.

Before this partnership started, the staff at the Zoo National d’Abidjan was struggling to incubate eggs successfully. After the ABQ BioPark’s visit in 2014, they achieved their first breeding success. Within the first two years of the partnership, Zoo National d’Abidjan welcomed 50 baby crocodiles.

“We’ve been working for years and years to build up to this year’s trip,” Eschenbrenner said. “Conserving crocs in the wild is the number one priority. Being able to work with individuals in Tai National Park was phenomenal. I’m hoping in the future we can get back and focus on the wild population.”

Read more about the multi-year project and past years.

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