Project Description

The Story of the New River Pollution Crisis


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.

Local Film Maker Daniel Velazquez created a short documentary about the issue and its impact on the health of the river. Head to YouTube to check out this 3min film!

You can help the CRC and our partners in Saving the New River!  Any financial donation will greatly assist us in our monitoring program.


Project Updates

August 2020:
Thanks to donations from South Florida's AZA Chapter, the European Nature Trust, and Lister Charitable Trust, CRC began construction of captive and rehab crocodile enclosures. One enclosure has been completed known as Endor, a rehab enclosure for small crocodiles. Currently, one rehab croc known as Pig Pen is in the enclosure. Pig Pen is under observation to assess his ability to heal from chronic pollutant exposure of the New River. Check out his story here

Feb 2020: Looking at the data we have collected from September to January, we have noticed a marginal increase in encounter rates from BSI to San Estevan, which is presumably the most contaminated section of the New River. This increase in encounter rates can be the result of receding water levels due to the start of the dry season. Crocodiles from nearby swamps may have already moved towards the main channel of water where there is a year-long supply of water and food. To this day, CRC has still been receiving reports of dead and ill crocodiles along the river from local tour companies. Moreover, while conducting surveys, we frequently witness crocodiles showing symptoms of pollution such as the bluish tint and white skin, distended bellies and lethargy.  

Dec 2019: During the September 2019 survey, the CRC caught 1 juvenile White Walker (Viserion) and took it back to the CRC facility for rehabilitation and monitoring. Although this crocodile did not have any white patches, it illustrated the whitish-bluish tint skin on its head and parts of its back, which we hypothesize is the beginning of the lack of keritanizing or sloughing of skin, in addition to a distended belly. Per recommendations of vets from the IUCN/SSC-Crocodile Specialist Group veterinary subcommittee, we conducted daily observations of the rehab croc, exposing this animal to clean water, food and a stress free environment. It has been suggested that in this basic clean environment, the animal may be able to metabolize any contaminants itself, and could illustrate signs of normal skin tone and texture within the next few months.

However, Viserion succumbed to the pollution. The bluish tint and white patches of the skin may be a sign of “It’s Too Late.” Rehabilitation may not be a solution for White Walkers, and euthanization may be the most humane action to prevent these crocodiles dying a slow painful death. CRC will continue to gather data to further understand the pollution event and its effect on crocodiles, in addition to assisting government and communities in saving the New River.  

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