Digbé, Zoh, Monet, and Irie awoke one February morning not realizing their professional lives were about to change forever. They were the crocodile keepers at the Abidjan National Zoo (ZNA) but from that day they were transformed into crocodile conservationists thanks to SOS grantee Dr. Matt Shirley, team leader with Project Mecistops.
Despite working with crocodiles on a daily basis, they had never even touched a crocodile before Matt showed up. But he was eager to change all that, convinced training and guidance, could help the keepers better manage their charges.
Previously, the typical day involved cleaning up public spaces, guiding visitors and feeding the crocodiles or cleaning their enclosure. With 53 large, semi-aggressive crocodiles packed into a small space there was little room to manoeuvre safely for untrained personnel. Consequently, the enclosures nor the animals could be cared for effectively. But the keepers were interested and enthused by Matt’s hands-on approach with such powerful predators.
Under his guidance, for two days, this new crocodile team led the entire ZNA keeper staff to safely capture, measure, assess the health of, and implant microchips into 39 Critically Endangered West African slender-snouted crocodiles (Mecistops cataphractus) ranging from 2.4 – 3.3 meters and weighing 150 – 382 kilogrammes. That’s a lot of reptile. Additionally, they moved 14 adult West African crocodiles (Crocodylus suchus) into a new, single-species enclosure, giving both species much needed reprieve.
Following the baptism by fire, prospects opened up. ZNA crocodile team leader Digbé became the first African recipient of the Behler Scholarship and attended the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums “Crocodile Biology and Captive Management” school at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm (SAAF), Florida, USA. Specialist crocodile keepers from SAAF, San Diego Zoo, Albuquerque BioPark, and the Smithsonian Institute also visited the ZNA to help Zoh, Monet, and Irie become West Africa’s only specialist crocodile keepers.
According to Matt, the team now enters the crocodile enclosure every morning, ensuring the crocodiles are habituated to their presence, removing trash, and augmenting the leaf litter substrate required for nest construction. The once defensive bamboo poles are now used in target and station training to better manage food distribution and conduct regular visual health inspections. And, as a result, the Abidjan city government and the national Wildlife Directorate now regularly call upon the ZNA crocodile team to assist with nuisance crocodile issues.
Thanks to the passion of supporters including the Ivorian First Lady, Mme. Dominique Outtara, and the tireless rehabilitation efforts of the Project Mecistops team, the ZNA is leading the zoo revolution and setting new standards for animal care in West Africa according to Matt. Furthermore, armed with new skills and new passions, the ZNA crocodile team is working through Project Mecistops to ensure the ZNA becomes a working West African model of the linkage between in- and ex-situ conservation.