The International Language of Crocodiles

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The Abidjan Zoo's director poses with a large male alligator at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.

The director of the Ivory Coast’s Abidjan Zoo poses with a large male alligator at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.

At the San Diego Zoo, employees have the opportunity to attend professional development courses to expand our knowledge base and to make the Zoo a stronger organization. For the past three years, the Zoo’s Reptile Department has sent an employee to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida to attend a 10-day Association of Zoos and Aquarium course called Crocodilian Biology and Captive Management. The San Diego Zoo has one of the most diverse collections of crocodilians in the United States, making this course very beneficial to a reptile keeper, as s/he is exposed to many different species of crocodilians. When the collection expands, as more crocodilians arrive at the Zoo, we will be ready to properly care for these beautiful animals.

Over the past several years, the Reptile Department has sponsored the work of Dr. Matt Shirley, a Ph.D. student from the University of Florida, Gainesville, in West Africa. Dr. Shirley discovered a new species of crocodile, the West African slender-snouted crocodile, which he later determined is on the verge of extinction. For over 150 years, this species was thought to be the same species throughout its range in central and western Africa. His research has separated the slender-snouted crocodile into the western and central slender-snouted species. His research and study of the region led him to the only zoo in the Ivory Coast, the Abidjan Zoo, where a substantial number of adult West African slender-snouts are housed.

Jeremy, left, and Digbe maintain a strong bond when it comes to crocodilians!

Jeremy, left, and Digbe maintain a strong bond when it comes to crocodilians!

The staff at the Abidjan Zoo have not been trained on the proper care, husbandry, diet, and safe handling of these crocodiles. This can be dangerous to the crocodiles and to the lives of the staff. With this notion in place, and Matt Shirley’s ties with the St. Augustine Zoo, the director of the Abidjan Zoo received a grant to attend the Crocodilian Biology course in Florida. The director of the Abidjan Zoo, whom I would later come to know as Digbe, had never left the Ivory Coast. As a former colony of France, the official language of the Ivory Coast is French. Digbe knew very little English. As a fluent French-speaking reptile keeper, the San Diego Zoo saw a great opportunity for me to travel to the St. Augustine Zoo and help translate for Digbe. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from some of the country’s premier crocodilian experts, and this course offered the best chance to help the director of the Abidjan Zoo gain a better understanding of crocodiles and thus share it with his staff.

My love of reptiles helped me translate all the amazing and beneficial information I was learning in class to Digbe. During the ten days, Digbe and I learned a lot about each other, and, thanks to the San Diego Zoo, we both left the Crocodilian Captive Management course with a better understanding of how to properly care for our beloved animals.

When speaking with Digbe, I learned that our zoo is blessed to have a plethora of books and resources to help make our collection one of the best in the world. The Abidjan Zoo is not as fortunate when it comes to resources. To help him out, I have sent over educational packages to help inform the children that visit the zoo (over a million!) on the importance of all animals, native and foreign. To this day, Digbe and I still communicate through email, sending pictures and updates of the new species of crocodilians.

This year, our Reptile Department and the American Association of Zoo Keepers organized its second annual “Croctoberfest.” All of this year’s proceeds with help benefit the slender-snouted crocodiles and future projects the San Diego Zoo has with the Abidjan Zoo. This May, the second annual Golf for Wildlife event will raise funds to send needed education supplies to the Abidjan Zoo’s newly built education center.

Hopefully, one day I will be able to visit Digbe in the Ivory Coast and help the fight to end extinction of these beautiful crocodiles!

Jeremy Fontaine is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Alligator Training.