Controlled Alligator Harvest an Effective Conservation Tool, Louisiana Says

By Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic
October 22, 2001
You wander through a store or flip through magazine pages and see a
gorgeous alligator bag, pair of shoes, or belt. Being the good
environmentalist that you are, you don't buy, because alligators are an
endangered species. Aren't they?

"No," Ruth Elsey, a wildlife biologist at the state-administered Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, said emphatically. "That's the biggest misconception people have, and one that we're constantly battling. Alligators are not endangered.

"There's a bumper sticker down here that says, 'If you want to save an alligator, buy a handbag,' and that's completely true," said Elsey. "We wish we could get people to understand that."

Louisiana's innovative Alligator Marsh to Market program is an effective conservation tool, state conservation officers say. It protects alligator populations and preserves critical wetlands habitats while providing about U.S. $54 million of economic benefits to the state each year.

Wetlands provide many important environmental benefits, such as storm buffer protection, home to migratory bird species, and aquifer recharging. Given these benefits, there is much concern about preserving wetlands.

Yet in Louisiana, most wetlands are privately owned, and the environmental benefits they provide generally don't give the landowners the financial incentives needed to encourage wetlands preservation.

Traditionally, the owners of wetlands have made money by leasing hunting rights to duck and deer hunters, fishermen, and camping or swamp-tour ventures. Activities such as these are not big money makers, however, which puts wetlands in jeopardy of being converted to other land uses.

The Alligator Marsh to Market program gives landowners an incentive to keep their marshlands wet and natural, rather than draining the land for crops, cattle grazing, or development.

"There are around 3.5 million acres (1.4 million hectares) of coastal wetlands in Louisiana that qualify as alligator habitat," said Noel Kinler, a biologist with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "Nearly 75 percent of that habitat is owned by private landowners, and with a few small exceptions, virtually every piece of land that qualifies is enrolled in the (alligator) program."

The Alligator Marsh to Market program, Kinler said, "is absolutely essential to maintaining critical habitat in the state."

Controlled Harvesting

The Marsh to Market concept was born in 1972. Previously, alligator hunting in Louisiana was virtually unregulated. As a result, alligator numbers declined so much that hunting was banned in 1963.

Biologists spent several years studying the life cycles of alligators, which led to a management and harvesting plan that eventually became the Marsh to Market program.

One problem the program stopped almost entirely was poaching. "When a landowner sees an alligator that could be harvested as an economic asset," said Kinler, "you can believe that if he sees someone poaching on his property, it's going to be reported."

Harvested wild alligators are tagged, enabling tanners around the world to show that the hides were legally acquired.

"The program has garnered a tremendous amount of respect from virtually every conservation organization, and is held up as an example of a conservation success," said Kinler.

Raising alligators isn't much different from being a chicken farmer or a cattle rancher, Elsey explained.

In June and July, alligator eggs are harvested from the nesting sites of wild alligators throughout the state. The eggs are sold to alligator farmers, who incubate them and grow the hatchlings in tanks housed in buildings. After a year or two, when the alligators reach about 3 to 4 feet (about 1 meter) in length, they are sold.

"The market for skins is mostly overseas," said Elsey. "The meat is sold both domestically and overseas."

About 75 percent of all wild alligator hides, along with about 85 percent of all farmed skins, used by tanners around the world come from Louisiana.

Managing a Renewable Resource

Officials credit the Marsh to Market program with helping to stabilize wild alligator numbers. Wildlife studies have shown that only about 17 percent of eggs hatched in the wild result in alligators that live to be 4 feet long (1.2 meters). The rest die as a result of natural mortality.

"Eggs are lost in floods, it gets too hot and they desiccate, they're eaten by raccoons or other predators," said Elsey.

The alligator hatchlings are also highly vulnerable. Larger alligators, as well as birds and other predators, eat small alligators.

To maintain alligator populations in the wild at sustainable levels, about 17 percent of the alligators hatched in captivity are released back into the wild as one- or two-year-olds—a total of 35,000 to 40,000 alligators a year, according to Elsey.

"It's a win-win situation for everyone," she said. "The farmers have a constant source of eggs, and landowners get a substantial economic value for maintaining critical habitat."

Landowners also make money from the licensed alligator hunt that occurs each September. The state determines how many alligators can be harvested based on nest counts done earlier in the year.

"In the last two years we harvested about 35,000 alligators from the wild. In prior years it was about 30,000," said Elsey.

Hunters take the alligator carcasses to central processing sheds, where the meat and skins are prepared for market.

According to a recent economic impact report on the Marsh to Market program, 64 alligator farms were operating in Louisiana, raising nearly half a million alligators.

Alligators sold at market are priced by the foot, with prices varying from year to year based on demand. Over the last decade, a farm-raised alligator averaged 4 feet (1.2 meters) in length and sold for about $77. Wild alligators averaged slightly more than 7 feet (2 meters) long and brought about $27 per foot in 2000. The eggs are valued at about $8.50 each.

"If you buy an alligator product," said Elsey, "you're supporting the conservation of wetlands and the preservation of critical habitat that benefits not just the alligator, but also furred animals, waterfowl, and other creatures that inhabit the wetlands. It's an act of conservation."

Kinler said the word is getting out. "The battle on the public education front is helping people make that connection," he said.

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