In early 2017, the Crocodile Research Coalition (CRC) began hearing reports of dead fish and ill, white or pink crocodiles along New River around Orange Walk Town in northern Belize. Community members were concerned of a contaminant in the water affecting the health of the river ecosystem. During nocturnal eyeshine surveys and capture surveys in March and April 2018 in conjunction with the countrywide Morelet’s crocodile population survey, CRC witnessed the concerns of community members. We observed many lethargic crocodiles of all sizes illustrating “white” skin patches or skin with a metallic bluish tint, in addition to pockets of dead fish and eutrophication. Crocodiles near Orange Walk Town illustrated “white patches” on their skin and illustrated a bluish tint, as if something in the water was causing the skin to slough off easily. Besides lethargy, some crocodiles were also “star-gazing,” a neurological symptom that paralyzes crocodiles from moving. We informed the government immediately.
CRC conducted necropsies on 2 Morelet’s crocodiles that were captured near along the New River near Banquitas Bridge and Maracas Restaurant in Orange Walk Town. The CRC team conducted necropsies immediately to obtain the most accurate samples for future heavy metal analysis, however collecting of samples proved difficult given upon opening up the thoracic cavity, the organs were already disintegrating in both crocodiles (especially the kidneys and liver). This is very abnormal, and given the state of some of the organs these animals have been chronically exposed to a contaminant and dying slowly for a few months (this was confirmed with fellow colleagues from the IUCN/SSC-Crocodile Specialist Group). CRC is unaware of any disease to cause such disintegration of organs as observed in these crocodiles. Given the state of organ decomposition (even while they were alive) and the white skin of these crocodiles, CRC has given the names of these crocodiles as White Walkers.
The CRC has been asked by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry, the Environment, Sustainable Development and Climate Change under the authority of Forest Department to further our investigations to identify the root of the pollution issue to help save the New River, in addition to hopefully provide information to prevent such a catastrophic pollution event to happen elsewhere in-country. We intend to conduct monthly surveys of New River, utilizing the population and health status of crocodiles as an indicator of the state of the environment. Water and soil samples have been taken, and we will continue to collect tissue samples for heavy metal and pesticide analysis to monitor pollutant levels.
We understand it may be a lengthy process to clean-up the river, but the CRC hopes that our research can provide government and the communities along New River the data necessary to ensure the long-term survival and health of this important ecosystem not just for the wildlife, but also for the multiple communities that depend on this river for their livelihoods.
You can help the CRC and our partners in Saving the New River! Any financial donation will greatly assist us in our monitoring program.
As we come to the end of Year 1 of the New River contamination project, PI Jonathan Triminio is now moving forward in acquiring funds for the second leg of the study. Based on our results from year one, the Morelet’s crocodile population within the study site seems stable at 2.42 crocodiles per kilometer. During our Capture surveys, we commonly observe adult crocodiles with discoloration indicating contaminant exposure. Juveniles and hatchling crocodiles seem to always have algae on them. Our last activity for Year 1 is conducting a Community/ Educational outreach in Orange Walk Town to talk about the coexistence with crocodiles and the impacts of the pollution of the New River. PI Jonathan Triminio also had the opportunity to give a poster presentation about this study at the Crocodile Specialists Group (CSG) IUCN meeting in Mexico in early July 2022.
Local Film Maker Daniel Velazquez created a short documentary about the issue and its impact on the health of the river.