Early on October 1 someone killed Donna, an act that outraged students and faculty and broke both state and federal laws: The American crocodile is classified as endangered by Florida law and threatened by federal law. A month after the crime, police arrested a man and a teenage boy, who allegedly wanted the skull as a trophy.
It's tempting to use Donna as a metaphor for the plight of the world's 23 recognized species of crocodilians, a group of related reptiles including crocodiles, alligators, caimans, and gharials. Having endured millions of years of planetary climate change, tectonic-plate musical chairs, and other ecological vicissitudes, they face a new challenge to their survival: us.
In the 1970s the population of crocodiles in Florida may have dropped to fewer than 400 individuals. The state's booming human population had crowded them out of most of the protected saltwater bays where they once lived, and many were killed by poachers for their hides, stuffed for museum displays, or captured for live exhibits.
In the years since, conservation measures have led to a rebound in Florida crocs, which may now number some 2,000. "Crocodile management isn't rocket science," says Steve Klett, manager of Florida's Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge. "If you protect their habitat and protect them from being killed, they will respond. The big issue now is the restricted range: Once they've occupied all the available habitat, where will they go?"
In Donna's case, to an urban area where he shouldn't have been living—except that there was probably no better alternative.