Paraguay's government has authorized farmers to kill 2,500 endangered crocodiles for their meat and hides, saying the animals are destined to die anyway because a crop irrigation project diverted a major river away from their habitat and a drought dried it further.
``We don't have a choice,'' said Wilfrido Sosa, an official with Paraguay's Environment Secretary office. ``There is only a little water left, and there are no fish for them to feed on.''
Some 50 crocodiles known here as Yacares are dying each day, the government says. Mud cakes many of the living crocodiles as the lakes dry in this part of Paraguay's Chaco region dotted by marshes and farmlands along the Argentine border where the Pilcomayo River flows.
Fed by waters from the Andes Mountains, the Pilcomayo was diverted 10 years ago to irrigate Argentine and Paraguayan farms. But that move and a prolonged drought has left many of the lakes and swamps with stagnant water if any at all.
``Most of the adult crocodiles have only two to three months to live,'' said Miguel Elias, an official with the government's environmental agency.
Farmers in General Diaz, a village 340 miles northeast of the capital, Asuncion, set out at dusk to hunt the crocodiles, which can grow up to nine feet in length.
Using wooden canoes, or wading through chest-high waters with sticks fashioned as spears, dozens of villagers on one recent night poked through the shallow waters to locate the animals. Once a crocodile is within reach, it was yanked from the water and later killed with clubs, axes and machetes.
Other crocodiles watched, the lights of the men reflecting from the animals' red eyes in the darkness.
The dead crocodiles are later hauled into the canoes. They are then skinned, bathed in salt and the hides laid out in the sun to dry, with many to be used later to make leather goods. Their meat is either sold are used to feed the younger crocodiles.
Some local residents have been offered $2.50 per dead animal by the government.
The government estimates there are 10,000 of the crocodiles left in the area, and has sanctioned the hunting of 2,500.
Paraguayan officials say they want to rescue many of the younger animals, but plans to relocate hundreds of them to other waters have been postponed until the weekend, said government official Miguel Elias. They are hoping rain might help ease the plight of the animals.
One reason for the delay was that the government needs to train soldiers on ways to safely capture the crocodiles, Elias said.
Some farmers say the work is dangerous.
``Although the crocodiles are weakened, some still have strength to bite,'' said Oscar Gonzalez, a farm owner where many of the hunts are taking place.
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