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Alligator Farming-Conserving a Natural Resources

March, 1999

When most people think of farming, they visualize fields of waving grain, fruit-laden orchards, or rows of vegetable crops. The image of a "farm" teeming with toothy alligators certainly doesn’t come to mind, according to Florida Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford.

But alligator farming has not only developed as a viable commercial enterprise, yielding a host of high-value products, it also has resulted in a conservation strategy for a once-endangered natural resource, Crawford said.

During the first two-thirds of this century, the American alligator endured unrestrained wild harvest, primarily for the hides. Legislation in the 1960s and early 1970s put a halt to rampant exploitation, and by the mid 1970s, populations began showing progressive increases. Estimates indicate that there are now more than 1 million wild alligators in Florida alone.

The increase in the alligator population also generated an increase in nuisance alligator complaints from the public. In 1975, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission received more than 5,000 complaints and spent approximately $250,000 per year in relocating nuisance alligators.

Nuisance calls are now assigned to licensed private trappers, who are allowed to keep the proceeds from the sale of the alligator for their services. Revenue from the trappers’ licenses goes toward conservation programs, which ensure that ample numbers are left in the wild to sustain current population levels.

With increasing alligator populations and recognition of the positive economic impact that the sale of alligator skins, meat and other by-products could bring, methods for systematic harvesting were explored. Prior to researching the feasibility of any harvesting program, certain criteria were established to achieve the desired result. The first emphasis was to be placed on the conservation of the species, its habitat and wetland ecosystems. Secondly, the harvest of alligators was to benefit the economy and people in the industry. Finally, conservation expenses were to be covered by the industry.

Research on the feasibility of farming alligators as a means of harvest and conservation increased during the 1980s. Data was collected on the habits and life cycle of alligators from numerous individuals, associations and government agencies, including the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission. The goal was to combine the knowledge derived from past exploitation of the species and develop new information to determine the best way to accomplish sustainable harvest objectives.

New data documented that the high reproduction rate in the wild accounted for the remarkable population growth. It was found that each productive female alligator deposits more than 30 eggs during nesting season. If all of these hatchlings survived, the resulting population explosion would be tremendous. However, egg and hatchling mortality is high due to natural events, such as flooding, drought and predation by other wild species. Nevertheless, research indicated that a substantial percentage of alligator eggs still survived. Therefore, a portion of these eggs could be harvested without harming populations. New rules based on these findings were adopted to allow harvesting of eggs from the wild for alligator farming.

American alligator sustainable-use programs require substantial financial investments in personnel and equipment. But this effort stabilizes the population growth of alligators in their natural habitat. It also provides more than 90 percent of the eggs for American alligator farming. In return, the licenses and fees that trappers, hunters and farmers pay to participate in the alligator industry provide one of the sources of revenue for sustainable-use programs.

The farming of alligators begins with the development of controlled environments that mirror the best of their natural habitats. Carefully monitored and regulated removal of eggs from the wild is the next step in establishing an alligator farm capable of producing sufficient quantities to supply market demand.

It takes 12 to 18 months for alligators to reach harvest size of 4 to 5 feet. Although all parts of the alligator are used for various markets, the skins are considered the most valuable due to the durability and elegance of alligator leather, which can be made into a variety of products, from fashion accessories to furniture upholstery. The skins can be tanned and dyed into numerous colors that are usually determined by fashion trends. Alligator leather products can be found in most of the finer retail department stores and boutiques. The market for alligator meat also has found a special niche due to its unique character and nutritional value from being low in fat and cholesterol.

Consequently, the farming of alligators is helping sustain a once-threatened species, while providing an abundance of unique and valuable products for domestic consumption and foreign trade.
 

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