The American Alligator is not only America's largest reptile, it is a living fossil. Yet despite having survived 230 million years, the species had been hunted to the brink of extinction by the 1970s. Over the past two decades, though, a determined effort in the American Southeast has reversed that trend so dramatically, that today the American alligator is no longer on the Endangered Species List.
Most people would be afraid to encounter a four and a half meter long alligator in the wild, but Allan Adams has been swimming with them since he was a child. "Alligators are like most wild animals and have a fear of man," he says, explaining that they are simply misunderstood. "If you're going down a bayou or a canal in a boat, alligator's first reaction if he's up on the bank or the water is, he's going to go under. You may not even know he's there, because he wants to get away from you, not come to you."
The American alligator was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1967. Despite being fully protected by law, millions of the reptiles were poached each year for their skins and meat. To educate the public about gators and what was happening to them, Adams became a bayou tour guide.
And he also got involved in a project to try to bring the species back. "What we did actually started in my home state of Louisiana," he says proudly. "It's called alligator farming. So we go out there and collect alligator eggs every year. We actually harvest the eggs, incubate them out, raise them for two years, 20 percent goes back into the wild. Now naturally, in the wild only about 1 percent or 1 out of 100 is going to make it to reach adulthood, but when we raise them to [one meter or so] long and cut them loose at that age, generally 90 to 95 percent [are] going to make it to reach adulthood."
Today Adams owns Gulf Coast Gator Farms in Mississippi, a 50-hectare swampland that is home to 400 gators. His primary mission is still to educate the public. Adams believes that by giving people first hand gator experiences, he increases the species' chances of survival. An elaborate system of boardwalks winds through the bayou, so that tourists can walk out among the gators and feed them marshmallows, a favorite gator treat. Adams also takes visitors deeper into the swamps by airboat to see the reptiles in their natural habitat.
And people are visiting from all over the world. The gator farm's guest book boasts signatures from Australia, Japan and the Netherlands, to name just a few. Duane Hazen, from Denver, Colorado, stopped by the farm on his first visit to the American south. "I was looking for something that I wouldn't find in Colorado, and this is definitely something I won't find there!"
Alligator farming is a conservation success story. With farmed meat and hides widely available, the black market for alligator goods has essentially disappeared. There are now more than 30 farms or ranches across the Southeast, selling alligator products both domestically and abroad, to countries like India, China, Italy and France.
Here in the American South, gator meat is considered a delicacy. It's a popular appetizer in restaurants, first chopped into small pieces then breaded, deep-fried and served with dipping sauces. Frozen packages of the meat are sold in grocery stores for home use. The tail portion is considered the best section of the gator, but the slightly tougher and darker underside is often tenderized in a marinade. Some people compare the flavor to pork and the consistency to frog legs.
Nutritionally, gator meat is high in protein and very low in cholesterol and fat. But alligator enthusiast Juanita Shaw, who often drops by Adams' gator farm, says the health benefits aren't enough to get her to eat it. "I attempted a bite, but I couldn't swallow it, I had to throw it out," she admits with a laugh. "I felt kind of guilty eating it."
The farms have helped alligators rebound so strongly that they were taken off the Endangered Species List in 1987. However, Allan Adams points out that alligators are still on the federal protection list. "That means a couple of things: you can't have them as pets, and you can't go out there and just kill an alligator or capture an alligator. So they're protected. They're like all wild animals, they actually have a season in Louisiana in September for the harvest of big alligators. That's done during 30 days of September and that's the only time it's done." He says the gator hunting season keeps the now-thriving population under control.
The alligator farming program has brought hunters, farmers and conservationists together, because it has achieved the delicate balance between restoring a population and creating a nuisance.