Just 120 Yangtze alligators (Alligator sinensis) remain in the wild in China, making them the world's most endangered crocodilian species.

But now field researchers have higher hopes for the survival of the species, after finding that it is not only extending its habitat but also successfully breeding. The survey team found alligator tracks in areas where the species has not been found for many years, and "We have for the first time found wild baby alligators," Wang Chaolin, deputy director of the Chinese Alligators Protection Nature Reserve in east China's Anhui Province, told China's Xinhua news service this weekend. "Normally their survival rate is only 2 percent. The finding of the infants indicates the number of the species is increasing."


Previous research conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society found that Chinese alligators in 2002 were declining at a rate of 4 percent to 6 percent a year, thanks in no small part to a widely dispersed population with no groups larger than 10 alligators.

China was home to as many as 3,000 wild alligators as late at the 1960s, according to The People's Daily. The species  decreased rapidly when its habitat was developed by humans, and they died from eating rats that had been poisoned to control vermin populations. By 1980, there were just 500 to 750 alligators left.

China first moved to protect the alligator -- the only species of alligator in the world outside of the U.S. -- in 1979, when conservationists there captured 200 gators and established the Chinese Alligator Breeding Research Center in Anhui. Since that time, the captive population has  exploded to more than 10,000. The captive alligators frequently, and legally, enter the food market, where their meat is believed to cure colds and prevent cancer, according to a May 2008 article in National Geographic.

Wang told Xinhua that this newfound growth can be attributed to the breeding program and the release of a few dozen captive-bred alligators to the wild -- about six a year, even though there are concerns that the 10,000 alligators at the Nature Preserve could face some inbreeding issues due to living in confined areas, although none have yet shown up, according to a recent report from Reuters.

Wang said he now hopes to see the wild population of Yangtze alligators increase to 300 over the next decade.

Image: Alligator sinensis, via Wikipedia