Nov 17

Wisirare Park: face-to-face with Colombia’s largest crocodile in Casanare

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Last year a film was released in Colombia that captured the public’s imagination and quickly broke national box-office records – the film was a high-budget and spectacular wildlife documentary named Colombia: Magia Salvaje. The film delved into Colombia’s remarkable biodiversity, with incredible footage of some of Colombia’s most iconic wildlife. One sequence that stands out from the film is the dramatic footage of the gigantic Orinoco Crocodile (Crocodylus intermedius or caiman llanero), the largest species of crocodilian (and indeed the largest predator) in the Americas. These mighty crocodiles are found only in freshwater environments in Colombia and neighboring Venezuela, and are critically endangered, with a global population estimated at just 1500 at the most, and as little as 250 at the least. Why is the Orinoco Crocodile so close to disappearing? One word can sum it up: hunting. During the past two centuries, and particularly the 1940s up until the 1960s, the species was hunted and killed by the thousand for it’s hide. In spite of being granted conservation status in the 1970s, the Orinoco Crocodile has yet to recover, with much of it’s former range being under threat from pollution, and animal trafficking remaining an issue. However, there is one place where the fight to conserve and protect the mighty Orinoco Crocodile continues unabated, the very place where the memorable Magia Salvaje sequences were actually filmed: Wisirare Park in Casanare, the heart of Colombia’s llanos orientales

 

wisirare casanare caiman orinoco
My, what big teeth you have!

 

At first glance at my photos Wisirare might appear to simply be a zoo where some of these majestic animals reside, but the park is, in fact, the focal point of the battle to protect these amazing crocodiles. Home to 9 adult Orinoco Crocodiles, two males and seven females, the park in fact operates as a breeding and reintroduction center for the species, and is, according to it’s founder, home to more examples of the Orinoco Crocodile than exist in the wild in Colombia – with over 300 of the crocodiles living at the park. Which is, depending on your perspective, both saddening and heartening. In fact, I would lean towards heartening as, in spite of the dire predicament in which the species finds itself, Wisirare is doing incredible conservation work, striving towards the goal of one day repopulating the massive eastern plains of Colombia with perhaps it’s most fearsome and wondrous species. The video below (in Spanish, but the images tell much of the story) goes into more detail regarding the conservation and educational work the Palmarito Foundation (which runs Wisirare, and operates several other reserves and conservation programmes in Casanare department) is doing:

The experience of visiting Wisirare and observing and learning about these animals surrounded by the vast plains of Casanare was a true privilege. Wisirare would be worth a visit even sans crocodiles; home to over 160 bird species alone, and set alongside a vast wetland area covering some 1300 hectares, the park is a true nature-lovers paradise. The excellent conservation work being carried out here is just the icing on the cake. Just arriving at the breeding center of the park, our group was met by the sight of large groups of parrots and macaws swirling overhead, and the lake was dotted with wild caiman (of the smaller variety) and turtles.

But the real treat here is still the Orinoco Crocodile. Before coming face-to-face with the really big ones, we learned about the breeding program being carried out by Wisirare, the ecology of the species, and had the chance to observe the breeding facilities, where hundreds of crocodiles are hatched and raised, before being reintroduced into the wild; a program that is largely taking place in Casanare’s Palmarito and La Aurora Reserves, and Tuparro National Park in Vichada department (over 60 caiman have been reintroduced to these parks since 2015). We even had the chance to hold a 2-foot young crocodile ourselves, and stare into the eyes of an animal that, in just a few more months, could very well be hunting for itself in the vast wilds of Colombia’s eastern plains. It’s a moving and wonderful thought as I firmly grip the crocodile, silently grateful for the band around it’s snapping jaws. From the breeding pools it’s just a few feet over to the reinforced metal fencing that surrounds the really, really big ones…

 

wisirare casanare caiman orinoco
Eye to eye with a future giant (and possibly the future of his species)

 

And boy, are they big! At first glance the large enclosure appeared to contain nothing but a lake and some vegetation. That is, until the owner lobbed a large fish at the edge of the pool, and we suddenly found ourselves a matter of feet from the largest crocodile I have ever seen in the flesh, along with a few more that were, if you’ll pardon my language, still bloody massive as well! Measuring a good 12 feet (at least, I’m not great at estimating size), the giant male Orinoco Crocodile that I found myself face-to-face with was certainly a sobering reminder of how truly insignificant we are in the wilds of these regions of the world. He could have eaten me for breakfast and had room for one more! These very adult crocodiles living in Wisirare are the same ones you will have seen onscreen in Colombia: Magia Salvaje. To see them at such close quarters was an even more memorable experience…

 

wisirare casanare caiman orinoco
No words…

 

After enjoying the rare opportunity to observe such a rare and beautiful beast up-close-and-personal, I was treated to one more surprise by the owners of the park – I was going to be allowed to release a young Charapa Turtle (also known as the Giant South American Turtle, and the largest species of side-neck turtle on earth) back into the wild. The foundation also manages a breeding program for these critically endangered turtles and, as an invited guest, I was being given the wonderful privilege of releasing a captive-bred Charapa turtle into the lake of the reserve. I named my scrappy little turtle Leonardo (Ninja Turtles, not Di Caprio) and sent him on his merry way, hopefully to survive and thrive in the beautiful wilds of Casanare and help bring his species back from the brink.

 

wisirare casanare caiman orinoco
Leonardo, about to be a wild turtle

 

And Casanare is beautiful – it was my third visit to the department, and easily my best experience so far (probably one of my best in Colombia). I will be writing more detailed posts about other aspects of the trip but, needless to say, cruising slowly along the Meta River at sunset, horse-riding in the lush green fields of the plains, watching hundreds of species of birds and animals, and learning about and experiencing firsthand the unique culture, music and food of the llanero people was a truly marvelous Colombian travel experience, one I would urge any adventurous traveler to Colombia to not miss out on. And, of course, you can visit Wisirare and come face-to-face with the largest crocodiles in Colombia…

Visiting Wisirare Park: the park lies roughly half-an-hour along a dirt road from the Casanare town of Orocue (in itself worth visiting for it’s stunning views over the Meta River, amazing sunsets and history). It’s free to visit, but you’ll have to arrange transport by 4×4 in Orocue (prices vary depending on numbers and season). The dry season is probably the best time to enjoy the wildlife that the park has to offer (December-February). Orocue can be reached in several ways, primarily by bus from Yopal, but also by boat along the Meta River from Puerto Gaitan in Meta (recommended – full post coming…). 

 

rio meta orocue casanare
Beautiful Casanare

 

Chris

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