The Chinese Alligator, Ecology, Behaviour, Conservation and Culture by J. Thorbjarnarson and X. Wang . Baltimore : The Johns Hopkins University Press , 2010 . 268 pp. Hardback. ISBN 13 : 978-0-8018-9348-3 ; ISBN 10 : 0-8018-9348-3 . £44

It is fair to say that there has been disagreement between Western-trained conservation scientists and those in China. Our own emphasis on habitat/ecosystem conservation and trying to maintain wild populations, can be contrasted with the work of those in China who have concentrated on captive breeding programmes, for example with the Giant Panda and – the subject of this book – the Chinese Alligator. And who is to say that we can cast aspersions? Programmes based on our in situ approaches for, say, saving the tiger or the rhino, can hardly be said to be unqualified successes.

One of the authors of this book is a Professor of Biology at the East China Normal University in Shanghai. The other, until his death from malaria just before publication, was a senior conservation biologist with W.C.S. They write sensitively about the in-situ/ex-situ problem, which dominates the future for this species. However, the scope of the book is much broader with chapters detailing matters such as alligator evolution and the relationship of crocodilians to the dragon myths both in the West and the East. The changes (both prehistoric and recent) in the Yangtse valley, which have made it one of the most populous areas on earth and the major site of rice production, are well described in a very readable way. Everything is fully referenced. It really is remarkable that any wild alligators exist at all. They were estimated to number 130 ten years ago and are certainly less now. They survive the summer in tiny ponds in close association with smallholdings of rice farmers. In the winter they dig burrows and hibernate.

The bulk of work described in the book, on habitat and population status, is based on field surveys by the authors in the period 1999–2009. This had a bad start in 1998 when a traffic accident severely injured John Thorbjarnarson and postponed everything by one year. The chapter on the alligator's biology is very good and it is surprising to find that there are still many gaps in this knowledge. It is interesting to learn that their diet (at least nowadays) is small rodents, beetles, river snails and other molluscs, with only a few fish. Delightful features of the book are the half-tone reproductions of paintings of alligators by Peng Ye, from the East China Normal University which preface each chapter.

The most salutary chapter is the last one, ‘The Future of the Alligator in China’. Ex situ breeding has resulted in there being thousands of alligators in captivity. The challenge is to find somewhere for reintroduction. Industrial development has resulted in environmental degradation in this part of China especially. Water in 25% of the country is judged unfit even for agricultural use let alone people or alligators. Yet the authors are able to see some grounds for optimism and were able to identify potential sites for re-establishing a ‘wild population’. This latter term has become a bureaucratic concept, which is described in depressing detail. However something has to be done about the Yangtze valley to keep it fit for human use and they feel that a future for the alligator can be fitted into that.

This really is a book about the current problems of trying to conserve biodiversity in the modern world and should be read by anyone with an interest in that subject (which should be all of us).