SKIN TRADE AND HARVEST HISTORY
Alligators have been harvested for some two hundred years. Alligators were first harvested in Louisiana in great numbers in the early 1800's. These alligators were harvested for their skins which were used to make boots, shoes and saddles, and for their oil used to grease steam engines and cotton mills. The demand decreased when the leather made from the skins was thought not to be durable. In the mid 1800's the demand for alligator skins increased again. These skins were used to make shoes and saddles for the Confederate troops during the Civil War. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, commercial tanning processes began in New York, New Jersey and Europe. Because this process made the alligator skins soft, durable and more pliable, the demand for alligator leather increased dramatically. By the mid 1900's Louisiana’s alligator population had been significantly reduced. In 1962 the alligator hunting season was closed statewide due to low numbers. The reduction in numbers was a result of non-regulated harvests. Detrimental harvest practices included overharvesting (today harvest quotas are set annually for each property currently hunted), non-selection of sexes which often resulted in overharvesting females (males currently comprise approximately 70% of adult alligators harvested) and no closed season, allowing hunting to coincide with nesting, which resulted in the harvest of future populations by harvesting females before they could release hatchlings from the nest or even begin nesting (current seasons are conducted in September after nesting). Through protection, research and management, Louisiana’s alligator population increased to a level capable of sustaining harvests. In 1972 the alligator season was opened only in Cameron Parish and lasted 13 days. Other parishes were gradually added until the season became statewide in 1981. Louisiana’s wild and farm alligator harvests currently exceed 300,000 animals annually, while the population level (based on aerial nest surveys) remains stable.
CITES - PURPOSE, TAGS, “NO DETRIMENT” AND APPENDIX II
CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an agreement between 175 countries to adhere to guidelines concerning international trade of certain wild animals and plants so as to not threaten their survival. A requirement derived from CITES is that the La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries illustrate annually that the harvest of alligators/alligator eggs has “no detriment” to Louisiana’s alligator population. Louisiana is currently harvesting less than 2% of the wild population annually. Two crucial instruments used annually to illustrate “no detriment” are aerial alligator nest surveys and harvest statistics. Each year biologists also use these instruments, as well as many others, to set alligator harvest and alligator egg collection quotas statewide. Another requirement derived from CITES is the tagging of all alligators harvested. Barcodes were added to Louisiana’s alligator tags in 2008 to assist in inventorying and tracking alligator hides. The La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries tracks each alligator tag from hunter/farmer issuance to shipment out of Louisiana or finishing in Louisiana. This tracking system also provides other important information such as harvest areas, alligator lengths/widths and the number of alligators taken. The alligator (American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis) is currently listed on Appendix II of CITES due to its similar appearances to other alligators/crocodiles which are listed as threatened or endangered with extinction. Louisiana’s alligators are not “endangered” or even “threatened” with extinction. Alligator populations in Louisiana increased consistently from 1970 to 1999, have remained stable/slightly increasing for the last 10 years and currently remain at high levels.
The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is the largest reptile in North America. The first reptiles appeared 300 million years ago and ancestors of the American alligator appeared 160 million years ago. Reptiles are a cold-blooded animal, which means that their body temperature is regulated by the temperature of the environment around them. This is why alligators are seen basking in the sun, trying to regulate their body temperature. Because alligators are cold-blooded, their body rates are slowed down and they feed less frequently in winter months. For this reason, alligators enter underground holes/dens and remain dormant throughout the winter months.
SIZE AND GROWTH RATES
Alligators are about 8" - 12" in length when they are hatched from eggs. Growth rates may vary from 2" per year up to 12" per year, depending on the type of habitat in which the alligator is living and the sex, size and age of the alligator. Growth rates slow down as alligators become older. Male alligators will grow faster and larger than females. Females can grow to approximately 9' in length and 200+ pounds. Males can grow to approximately 13'+ in length and attain 500+ pounds.
RANGE AND HABITATS
Alligators range from central Texas eastward to North Carolina. Louisiana has the highest alligator population currently approaching 2 million. Although alligators can be found in ponds, lakes, canals, bayous, rivers and swamps, in Louisiana the highest populations occur in coastal marshes. Of the almost 4.5 million acres of alligator habitat available in Louisiana, coastal marshes account for approximately 3 million, followed by cypress-tupelo swamp (750,600 acres), dewatered wetlands (350,000 acres), Atchafalaya Basin swamp (207,000 acres) and lakes (47,450 acres). Approximately 79% of Louisiana’s coastal marsh alligator habitats are privately owned.
Mature male, non-breeding female and sub-adult alligators tend to stay in deep water habitats. Alligators mate during the spring. After mating, females select nesting sites, usually near isolated ponds in interior marsh habitats. These areas usually have dense vegetation adjacent to the isolated ponds which will be used for nest construction. Female alligators generally build their nests by pulling vegetation together forming a mound. This mound nest will be 2' - 4' high and 4' - 8' in diameter. The female alligator makes a cavity by opening the nest and lays 20-60 eggs (averaging 35 eggs). After all the eggs have been laid, the female covers the cavity containing the eggs with vegetation from the nest. The nest vegetation maintains suitable temperatures and humidity which incubates the eggs. The female will remain near the nest during incubation and must open the nest to help the young alligators (hatchlings) exit the nest. Approximately 65 days after the eggs have been laid, the young will begin hatching and calling. Upon hearing the calls of the young, the female alligator will help them exit the nest by opening the top of the nest. The young may stay near the nest site for a couple of years. During the winter, alligators will enter underground holes/dens and remain dormant. As spring arrives, alligators emerge from winter dormancy and the annual processes (mating, nesting, winter dormancy, etc.) begin again.
Young alligator diets consist of small animals such as insects, crawfish, small fish, frogs, etc. As alligators grow large enough their diet changes to include larger animals such as rats, crabs, larger fish and frogs, small birds, etc. When alligators mature their diet changes to include even larger animals such as muskrats, nutria, beaver, raccoons, large birds and fish, snakes, turtles, deer, etc.
WILD HARVEST SEASONS, AERIAL NEST SURVEYS AND QUOTAS
Much effort and time is needed in preparation for the wild alligator season in Louisiana. Preparation begins in June when the annual aerial alligator nest survey is conducted. The survey consists of sampling almost 150,000 acres coast wide and takes approximately 9 days to complete. Data obtained during the survey is used to calculate nest densities for over 50 management units statewide. Management units are classified by habitat type (fresh, intermediate and brackish marshes, swamps, lakes, etc.) for each parish/sub-parish. Other important data collected during the survey is habitat conditions. Louisiana’s wild alligator season usually begins in late August/early September and continues for approximately one month. Each year following alligator nest surveys, La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries personnel review current habitat assessments, 5 year average nest densities and past harvest statistics and tag allotments for each management unit statewide. Tag allotments and harvest quotas are then set for each management unit for the upcoming wild alligator season. An alligator hunter must possess alligator CITES tags to harvest alligators and must attach these tags to alligators immediately upon harvest. The tags are issued by the La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries for property containing sufficient alligator habitat capable of sustaining an alligator harvest. Alligator hunters apply for alligator tags prior to the season. The alligator hunter application includes a license application form containing alligator hunter information (name, dob, address, etc.), a legal description (township, range and sections) and map of the property to be hunted, and a landowner’s signature indicating permission for the hunter to harvest alligators on the property. La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries personnel review each alligator hunting application and enter each property into a GIS computer system which assesses property acreage by habitat type and makes appropriate tag allocations (the number of alligators that may be harvested from that specific property). Prior to the wild alligator season, alligator hunters go to La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries offices where they are issued the appropriate licenses and CITES alligator tags. Alligator hunter licenses possess important information about the hunter as well as the properties to be hunted. Alligator tags are property specific and must be used on the property indicated on the hunter’s license. The majority of the wild alligators are harvested by the fishing method. Baited hooks are suspended above the water. Alligators (feeding primarily at night) take the bait and are dispatched by the hunter when he checks his lines early each day. Alligators are immediately tagged and transported to licensed facilities which process alligators for their meat, hides and other commercially valuable parts.
RANCHING AND FARMING
Research showed alligators could be grown successfully under artificial conditions on farms. To provide alligators for stocking alligator farms, Louisiana began an alligator ranching program in 1986 which allows licensed alligator farmers to collect alligator eggs on private lands and incubate and hatch those eggs under artificial conditions. Most alligator egg collectors fly (some use helicopters, ultra-lights, motorized parachutes, etc.) to survey areas in which they are permitted to collect eggs (in swamps, egg collectors usually identify nest locations from boats). Upon nest identification, collectors mark nest locations using pvc, bamboo, flagging, gps or maps, visit nest locations (usually by airboat), open nests and collect eggs. Nesting material is placed around eggs in storage containers (trash cans, ice chests, plastic boxes, etc.). A storage container may contain several nests. Because alligator embryos attach to the tops of eggs, embryos will die if eggs are turned over. For this reason, the tops of eggs are usually marked so eggs are not accidentally turned over. Eggs are transported to incubators where the eggs are then transferred to numbered baskets. The numbering of baskets help provide necessary data concerning nest locations, egg numbers and hatching rates. Baskets containing eggs are placed in incubators which provide optimum conditions for egg incubation. The incubators are heated to approximately 86-91o Fahrenheit (F) and provide moisture to aid incubation. Approximately 65 days later, baskets are opened and the hatchlings are removed. A unique characteristic of alligators is sex determination through incubation temperatures. More males are produced when eggs are incubated at higher temperatures (90o F and above). Conversely, more females are produced when eggs are incubated at lower temperatures (87o F and below). Hatchlings are then transferred to raising facilities sometimes called grow out pens.
Alligator raising facilities are characterized by many different building designs and sizes. Nevertheless, these facilities must meet specific requirements set forth by the La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries. The facilities are insulated and heated and are capable of containing, filtering, draining and heating water to maintain temperatures between approximately 85-90o F. Buildings are usually partitioned so as to limit the number of alligators in one area. Such partitioning configurations include stalls or shelves.
RELEASES INTO WILD AND FARM HARVEST SIZES
Farmers raise alligators until they reach approximately 3' to 5' in length. At this time, the farmer must return back into the wild what would have survived to the 3' to 5' size classes (at 4' average length, 12% of hatch). La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries personnel travel to these farms and must measure, mark and identify the sex of every alligator before release. Alligator farmers and landowners/managers release the farm raised alligators into the wild. Because of the numbered webtags and tail markings, a farm-released alligator can later be identified. The information gathered from these farm-released alligators such as growth, survival and dispersal rates is used to monitor and promptly adjust any regulations when needed. Farm raised alligators have faster growth rates than wild alligators due to continuous and optimum growing conditions (food supply, air and water temperatures - wild alligators have approximately 6 months of growing conditions due to cooler temperatures in the late fall, winter and early spring months). Two advantages of releasing juvenile farm raised alligators are alligators released have better chances of survival (alligators released are 3'-5' and have better chances of survival than hatchlings 8"-12") and alligators are produced every year (if predators destroy nests or flooding occurs, no eggs would hatch and thus no recruitment to the population). The remaining percentage not released into the wild can be sold by the farmer. The majority of farm alligators are harvested at the 3'-4' size classes. Natural mortality in the wild suggests most alligators harvested by farmers would not have hatched/survived if left in the wild and would have been a loss of the resource. Between 1999 and 2008, over 2.5 million (average 251,529 per year) alligators were harvested on farms in Louisiana and were valued at over $335 million (average $33,557,612 per year).
HIDES AND PRODUCTS
Although practically every part of the alligator is used, the meat and the skins are the most valuable. Raw alligator skins are preserved before tanning by salting the hides. The hides are then rolled up and sent to tanneries around the world. Tanneries convert the raw hides into finished alligator leather. Many color and skin finish combinations exist ranging from matte white to glossy black. Once alligator hides have been tanned, they are used to make all types of products varying in size from earrings to sofas. Such products may include key chains, money clips, watch bands, boots, shoes, belts, briefcases, wallets, purses, etc.
HARVESTS AND ECONOMIC VALUES
Alligators are a renewable natural resource. By placing an economic value on alligators, landowners are offered incentives to not only conserve wetlands but also enhance them, so as to increase alligator populations. Water control structures such as this may reduce the number of alligator eggs lost to flooding. Water control structures also allow land managers to manipulate water levels to properly manage alligator populations, which not only benefits alligators but birds, fish, furbearers and other animals that live there as well. Louisiana now has an alligator program in which ranchers collect over 350,000 alligator eggs, trappers harvest over 28,000 wild alligators and farmers harvest over 250,000 farm raised alligators annually. Raw meat and hide values are estimated at over $10 million for the wild harvest and over $40 million for the farm harvest annually. (Note these values consist of raw meat and hides only and are not reflective of hide values after tanning and product manufacturing, values associated with jobs, tourism, economy, etc. or egg values.) Estimates have been made that the alligator industry is valued at over $50 million annually to Louisiana. The majority of farm and wild alligator skins are being tanned in Singapore, Italy and France. In recent years the United States tanned less than 10% of all alligator skins produced in Louisiana. Although over 300,000 alligators are harvested annually from farm and wild sources, the population remains constant/slightly increasing. Through wise utilization and proper management, Louisiana’s alligator population continues to remain stable while at the same time allowing for the sustainable use of a valuable renewable natural resource.