THE few hundred permanent inhabitants of the sleepy tropical town of San Borja had never seen anything quite like it. First they rushed to their airstrip - just one run-down building and a control tower - to witness the unaccustomed sight of dozens of journalists unloading cameras and equipment. ``The president must be coming,'' whispered one old lady in her amazement. A few minutes later a huge Bolivian Air Force Hercules plane circled the town and then bumped and braked down the short grass runway. Photographers, ecologists, and local people pushed and shoved to be near the back exit of the plane.
Slowly the rear door of the Hercules was lowered, revealing not the president but 36 black caiman crocodiles spread out on the floor.
Tied to long poles with rags over their eyes, the caimans appeared oblivious to the scramble and excitement their arrival had created. ``They're not dead, just hypnotized,'' explained one of the handlers.
San Borja is 250 miles north of La Paz, the capital, at the entrance to Bolivia's flat, tropical lowlands, whose rivers eventually flow into the Amazon.
After the caimans were successfully flown from a private ranch to San Borja, they were transferred onto trucks and driven 30 miles along bumpy roads to the Biological Station of the Beni, a state nature reserve set up in 1982 to protect wildlife.
Operation ``Caiman Carlos,'' as the airlift was known, was designed to stem the drastic decline in numbers of the black caiman. Experts estimate that indiscriminate hunting to meet the demand in the West for crocodile-skin luxury products has reduced its numbers to no more than 3,000 in the whole of Latin America, virtually all in the Amazon basin. Just 50 years ago, about 700,000 existed in Bolivia alone.
What is considered the world's largest population of the black caiman lives on the El Dorado ranch, situated 200 miles north of La Paz on the Beni River, which feeds the Amazon. The ranch used to supply beef for the workers in Bolivia's state tin mines, most of which have closed following the collapse of tin prices in 1985. The cows' entrails were fed to the crocodiles in lagoons on the ranch.
El Dorado's German owners decided to allow some of the black caimans to be transferred after they could no longer afford to slaughter cattle just to feed the crocodiles. Overcrowding and insufficient food had led some of the crocodiles to resort to cannibalism. As a result, the number of black caimans on the ranch dropped from 2,000 at the beginning of the 1980s to about 200.
Last year the owners agreed to let two ecology groups, the Bolivian Wildlife Society (Prodena) and the German Action to Protect Endangered Species (AGA), oversee the airlift.
Only 36 of the 200 black caimans on the ranch made the trip, although there are hopes to transfer some of the rest. The organizers say they ran out of time to drain a third lagoon, home to at least 70 more reptiles. Most of the 36 are young adults weighing about 175 pounds and measuring no more than 10 feet. A full-grown black caiman can weigh more than 600 pounds and measure 20 feet or more, making it one of Latin America's largest animals.
The selection of smaller caimans eased the difficult task of blindfolding and tying them to long poles during the journey. Much to the relief of the organizers and dozens of accompanying journalists, the blindfolds had the desired effect of tranquilizing the caimans.
But once they were taken off, the caimans ``quickly recovered their natural aggressiveness'' in the lagoons on the station, according to one of the organizers. Initial reports indicate that none of the caimans was seriously damaged during the journey.
The whole operation cost about $35,000, most of which was provided by the French designer-sportswear company Lacoste, which uses the crocodile as its logo. This means that approximately $1,000 was spent saving each caiman, much more than first anticipated.
Lacoste and the organizers may have to wait some time before they will know if the caimans' new home will protect them from hunters and allow them to breed in a natural habitat. It usually takes the black caiman five years to reach adulthood and reproduce. It's unknown whether conditions on the station will be sufficiently similar to those on the El Dorado ranch.
Unfortunately for the black caiman, its skin is regarded as one of the most desirable for its smoothness and softness, which makes it particularly valuable for such luxury items as handbags, wallets, and shoes.
``Bolivian hunters never receive any profits, but they hunt to survive,'' says Mauro Bertero, the Bolivian agriculture minister, who witnessed the airlift. ``The hunting is inspired by international demand.''
Hunters receive at most $40 (US) for a black caiman skin. But the same skin turned into shoes can fetch as much as $10,000 in Japan and West Germany, where there is the greatest demand.
``There's no internal consumption of the black caiman in Bolivia,'' says Alfredo Aparicio, information officer for Bolivia's largest environmental organization, LIDEMA. ``Crocodile skin products do not represent any social status as they do in other countries. Caiman meat is not good to eat, nor are its eggs, so the main interest in hunting it is to market the skin abroad.''
Prodena and AGA say the answer is to stop the demand in the West and curb the activities of companies illegally importing skins and hides, many of which are based in West Germany.
In March 1988, Spanish police found 63,000 skins in a Madrid warehouse, including 592 black caiman skins. According to Gunter Peter, president of AGA, these formed part of a shipment of 375,000 skins and furs, many of which were on their way to West Germany. ``West Germany accounts for around 80 percent of traded crocodile skins,'' says Mr. Peter.
Environmentalists are particularly concerned about the ecological imbalance caused by the spectacular drop in the number of black caiman and other crocodiles in the Amazonian area in recent years.
``The absence of the crocodile has meant an increase in the number of larger fish like the piranha,'' says Peter. ``The piranhas eat the smaller fish, which used to provide food and a livelihood for local people.''
International observers witnessing the airlift operation shared the organizers' concerns and aims, but complained of their lack of experience. Richard Steiner, the Swiss president of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, felt the lack of organization and management resulted in problems which could have been avoided.
There was, for example, no written agreement with the ranch owners about the number of caimans to be handed over, which led to angry disputes. Enrique Wagner, one of the owners of El Dorado, accused the organizers of being ``more interested in mounting a media show than in protecting the animals.''
Andres Szwagrazak, Prodena's executive secretary and the main organizer of the operation, says there were conflicts with the owners and inadequate time, but adds, ``At least we have a number of caimans in good condition in the lagoons with a good chance of survival.''
Just a few years ago, the owners of El Dorado were planning to kill the black caimans or put them in nearby rivers and let they prey on their only enemy - man.