San Diego Zoo gets two Chinese alligators in preservation effort

SAN DIEGO On her first full day in her new home, Xiao was tentative Tuesday, but the sun finally lured her out of the pool onto the sand. Xidi was less adventuresome, preferring the water.

The pair of Chinese alligators had just arrived at the San Diego Zoo from the St. Augustine (Fla.) Alligator Farm Zoological Park as part of a long-term strategy to keep the species from going extinct in the wild.

The alligators are among the smallest and most endangered members of the crocodilian family. Unlike their American cousin — the world’s only other alligator species — they are armored top and bottom. Their tapered snouts turn up slightly at the end, and their blunt teeth are good for crushing clams and snails.

For eons, Chinese alligators were found in much of eastern China. They were called “muddy dragons” and lived along the wetlands of the Yangtze River.

But dams along the Yangtze destroyed nearly all their habitat, farmers poisoned the rats they ate and hunters killed them, spurred by beliefs that alligator meat cures ailments and prevents cancer.

Kevin Torregrosa, the reptile expert at the St. Augustine alligator farm, said the latest estimate is that there may be fewer than 100 Chinese alligators in the wild. The species is listed as critically endangered.

A population of the animals on a Chinese preserve is imperiled by inbreeding, and there are not many wild places where they could be reintroduced.

Enter a “species survival program” for the Chinese alligator under the auspices of the Maryland-based Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums. Torregrosa is the program director. With the loan of Xiao and Xidi to San Diego, the St. Augustine park retains 15 Chinese alligators.

The survival program is working to mix and match male and female alligators among the 28 zoos and reptile parks that have one or more of the animals, which grow to a length of 5 to 7 feet, and 80 to 100 pounds.

Which brings us to the arrival Monday of Xiao and Xidi by air freight, eagerly awaited by curators at the San Diego Zoo.

Both of the animals are females. Next year the zoo hopes to get a male Chinese alligator so propagation can begin. Artificial insemination among reptiles has not been perfected.

For now, Xiao and Xidi will swim and lounge in their open-air grotto, part of a new reptile and amphibian exhibit called Reptile Walk, which includes Surinam toads, Malayan giant turtles, Mexican giant tree frogs, rosy boas, kingsnakes and more. The exhibit opens Wednesday.

The Chinese alligators do not pose a threat to humans, except possibly in the most extreme of circumstances. They are warm-weather creatures; the balmy clime of Southern California should be ideal.

“It’s sad when something so small and benign is reduced to such small numbers in the wild,” said Kim Lovich, associate curator of herpetology at the zoo. “I don’t have a favorite reptile, but I do love the crocodilians.”

After being on display in Florida, Xiao and Xidi are accustomed to being watched and, once they get used to their new digs, probably will spend more time on the sand than submerged.

“They have neat little personalities: a little like bulldogs, stocky, with a little attitude,” said Torregrosa. “You’re going to like them.”