Hunters in the U.S. state of Florida are matching wits with a creature that dates to prehistoric times; the alligator. Florida's five-week alligator hunting season ends next week and hunters are scouring Florida's swamps and lakes with one goal; to catch and kill the biggest alligator they can find.
Phil Walters guns the engines of his airboat and within seconds he is heading out onto the black murky waters of Lake Hancock in central Florida. Mr. Walters is an alligator guide and many say he is the best in the business. His uncanny ability to find alligators, especially large ones, puts his services in high demand during Florida's alligator hunting season.
Alligators used to be an endangered species in Florida. But a ban on hunting has led to an explosive growth in the alligator population in the past three decades. The state of Florida allowed the resumption of alligator hunting in 1988 and since then the hunts have been growing in popularity. Phil Walters explains alligator hunting is completely different from other types of hunting.
"With other animals you cannot use a moving vehicle or vessel so that is different," he explained. "With other animals you cannot use a light at night, that is illegal. With other animals, most of them you can shoot them and with alligators you have to attach a restraining line to them, that is where the harpoon comes in. Also we are out on the water in wetlands, so it is a totally different type of hunting."
Tonight Phil Walters is taking a group of experienced big-game hunters out onto Lake Hancock in search of a large alligator that has been eluding him for weeks.
He uses his airboat, a flat-bottomed aluminum boat powered by a large fan that sits on its stern to skim over the shallow waters and marshes of Lake Hancock. The hunters stand in the bow of the boat armed only with harpoons. Airboats are highly maneuverable and fast, and it is not long before Phil Walters spots his prey.
"Can you guess where it is at? There it is... that is it, pull it…," he said. "We got three darts [harpoons] in him ... do not pull him in the boat…"
After the hunter harpoons the alligator, Phil Walters carefully pulls his airboat close to the thrashing animal. He grabs its tail and tapes it mouth closed. Then the hunters pull the large three-meter alligator into the airboat and use a sharp knife to cut through its heavy hide and sever the alligators vertebrae, killing it instantly.
The alligator Phil Walters helped his hunters catch was not the large one he has been hunting for weeks, but it was a large alligator, an old female, probably about 30 years old and more than three meters long. The alligator, he says, was too old to breed anymore, and killing it will not hurt Lake Hancock's thriving alligator population of several thousand.
Phil Walters and his hunters hunt all night. By law the hunts must begin after sundown and end before sunrise. Alligator hunters used to be able to kill up to 15 alligators in a season, but now with more than 2,000 hunting permits issued every year, hunters can only kill two alligators each season.
Not everyone supports alligator hunting. Animal rights groups say the hunts are cruel and the alligators suffer terribly. But state wildlife officials defend the hunts, saying they are a legitimate recreational activity.
There are more than one million alligators in Florida, and only about 3,000 are killed by hunters in Florida's annual alligator hunting season. About 8,000 other alligators are killed by animal control wardens and by individuals who find them on private land.
Hunters say the hunts are a valuable conservation activity and that when alligators were not hunted they became unafraid of humans and dangerous to communities near their habitat.
John Ventimeglia, a Florida businessman who killed the alligator on Phil Walters hunt, says hunters are vital to good conservation efforts.
"I have been hunting since I was a kid," he said. "As I have gotten older I have gotten more into the conservation part of it. I was always somewhat conservation minded, but I never really realized how much hunting is necessary to control or to replenish our natural resources."
Alligator skins used to sell for about $100 a meter, but in recent years the price of skins has collapsed to less than half that. Guides like Phil Walters usually take the skins and alligator meat as partial payment for their services, but he says even working every day of hunting season it is not easy to make a living as an alligator guide.
But he says there is nothing he would rather do than be out on his airboat at night hunting a wily and dangerous alligator in the black waters of Lake Hancock. He says hunting alligators is a true test of your hunting skills.