For nearly 20 years, the critically endangered Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) has been considered nearly extinct in the wild, victimized by habitat loss and poaching. A small population was found in Cambodia in 2000 and, until now, it was believed that, at most, 250 of the rare crocodiles existed in the world.

But recently, conservationists became aware of a new population of Siamese crocodiles, all of which were already living in captivity at Cambodia's Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center. According to researchers from Fauna & Flora International (FFI), this means there is hope of creating a captive-breeding program to save the Siamese crocodile from extinction.

The newly discovered crocs were originally suspected to be hybrids of multiple crocodile species. But conservationists managed to wrestle all 69 crocs living at the center (not an enviable job) to obtain DNA samples. Testing proved that 35 of the 69 animals were purebred Siamese, including six adults and 29 juveniles and hatchlings.

"This could provide a critical lifeline for the long-term preservation of this critically endangered species," Phnom Tamao Director Nhek Ratanapech said in a prepared statement.

"For the first time in Cambodia, we have a captive population of animals that we know 100 percent are purebred Siamese crocodiles," Adam Starr, who manages the Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Program, told the Associated Press. The program is a joint effort of the Cambodian government and FFI.

FFI and other conservation groups will now help the staff at Phnom Tamao to come up with a breeding program that could yield new crocodiles as early as next year. If successful, they will also work with the IUCN Reintroduction Specialist Group to release Siamese crocodiles back into the wild once the offspring have reached two years of age.

Siamese crocodiles were hunted into near-extinction in the mid–20th century due to their highly prized skin, which is much softer than that of other crocodile species. Researchers knew that some hybrid crocs on Cambodian farms had Siamese DNA because they had long ago been crossbred with other crocodile species to produce larger, faster-growing, softer-skinned animals for commercial exploitation. This is the first time that purebred Siamese crocodiles have been found among any hybrids anywhere in Cambodia.

Image: Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis). Photo courtesy