Sometimes conservation plans work so well that once-endangered species no longer need protection. That's the case in Central America, where the Morelet's crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii) has recovered enough that many of the protections put in place decades ago to help it are now on the verge of being lifted.

Once heavily hunted for their skin, which was heavily valued as a source of high-quality leather, the Morelet's crocodile began its slow climb toward survival back in 1970, when Mexico (where most of the animals live) banned hunting of all crocodiles and caimans. That year, it was also protected under the predecessor to the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), which prevented any import of the animals or their parts into the country, a ban that continued after the ESA was enacted in 1973. In 1975 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed the species under its Appendix I, which forbid any trading of the crocs except under special circumstances.

The years of protection did the trick. By 2000, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which maintains the Red List of Threatened Species, downgraded the crocodile from "Endangered" to "Lower risk/Conservation dependent."

Then, last year, CITES reassessed the species once again, and reported in March 2010 (pdf) that "there is currently no evidence that disease, native or alien predator species, tourism, or scientific activities represent negative factors or threats for the wild populations of the Morelet's crocodile." CITES also found that Mexico's legal protections are effective and adequately enforced, as are similar laws in Belize and Guatemala; and that there is a large enough captive population of the species to satisfy all domestic and part of the international demand for its leather. CITES thereby moved the species to its Appendix II, which allows for closely controlled trade.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service followed this up on April 27 by recommending that the Morelet's crocodile be removed from the ESA.

The species isn't completely out of the woods (or swamp, as it were). CITES reports that the crocodile still faces significant habitat degradation in Mexico (which holds 85 percent of the species' habitat), Belize and Guatemala. A 2002 study found a high level of mercury in the 31 nonviable crocodile eggs in Belize, although the adults appeared to be fine. And the species is still being smuggled, with the most recently thwarted attempt taking place at Mexico City International Airport on April 25.

But even with those threats, it's nice to see a conservation story that's working out, and a crocodile species that no longer needs to shed as many tears.

Photo by Mike Holmes via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license