A group of baby Chinese alligators—the most threatened of all the crocodilians—have reclaimed their ancestral home. The alligator parents, four of which were raised at the Bronx Zoo and reintroduced to Chongming Island at the mouth of the Yangtze River, represent the first captive-born generation to successfully breed in the wild. The history-making hatchlings give their critically endangered species a new chance for survival.

The 15 baby alligators represent 10 years of work by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), parent organization of the Bronx Zoo, the Department of Wildlife Conservation and Management of the State Forestry Administration of China, and other groups. The effort to revive the species began in 1999 with a survey conducted by WCS, the Anhui Forestry Bureau, and the East China Normal University in Anhui Province, the only remaining home for the reptiles in the wild. The results of the survey were dire: Scientists tallied fewer than 130 animals in a shrinking population.

Following an international workshop to discuss the future of Chinese alligators in 2001, recommendations were made to reintroduce a group of captive-bred animals. The first three alligators released in Hongxing Reserve of Xuancheng County in Anhui in 2003 were from the Anhui Research Center of Chinese Alligator Reproduction (ARCCAR). A dozen more followed, traveling from the Bronx Zoo and two other and North American parks to the Changxing Yinjiabian Chinese Alligator Nature Reserve.

Of this group, three American-born alligators were released in 2007 along with three from Changxing. Veterinarians from WCS-Global Health and the Shanghai Wildlife Zoo examined the alligators and fitted them with radio transmitters in order to monitor them as they made their way in the wild. By 2008, the alligators had successfully hibernated, paired up, and laid eggs.

The announcement of the new hatchlings was made at the International Congress for Conservation Biology, convened by the Society for Conservation Biology in Beijing, China (July 11–16).

“We are grateful to our Chinese partners for their commitment to reintroduce Chinese alligators back into the wild,” said Dr. Steven E. Sanderson, WCS President and CEO. “WCS has championed careful wildlife reintroductions for more than a century. The reintroduction of Chinese alligators is a great example of how WCS partners with governments and local communities around the world to save wildlife and wild places.”

“This is fantastic news,” said WCS researcher Dr. John Thorbjarnarson, one of the world’s foremost experts on crocodilians and a participant in the project. “The success of this small population suggests that there’s hope for bringing the Chinese alligator back to some parts of its former distribution.”

Also known as “tu long,” which means “muddy dragon,” the Chinese alligator once ranged over a wide watershed area of East China. Today, this remnant population is one of only two alligator species in existence. (The other is the better known, and much better off, American alligator.)

The Yangtze River is the third longest river in the world after the Amazon and the Nile, and the most economically important waterway in China. The world’s largest hydro-electric dam, the Three Gorges Dam, is also located on the river. The high levels of development along the river have become a challenge for native wildlife; in 2006, a comprehensive search for the Yangtze River dolphin, or baiji, didn’t find any, although a single dolphin was seen in 2007.

Other participants in the project include Shanghai Forestry Bureau and Wetland Park of Shanghai Industrial Investment (Holdings) Co. Ltd. The project received additional support from the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, Hong Kong.

Read the press release: Critically Endangered Alligators, Born and Raised at WCS's Bronx Zoo, Now Multiplying in China's Wild