As beasts go, an alligator is not as pleasing to the eye as an oriole, a gazelle or even a crow. Neither is he doe-eyed or, lacking vocal cords, sweet of voice. He is an ugly fellow of no particular charm. Yet people travel to Florida from all over the country to get a look at him and other state assets. And a suitcase made of his hide is both durable and handsome, and can set you back $1,000 in today's retail market. This combination of prejudices and preferences threatens him with extinction. As he gets rarer the price of his hide is rising like AT&T in the 1928 Wall Street market, poachers are making very tidy sums and conservationists are deeply worried.
There are only two kinds of alligators in the world—our own and the Chinese type, which is quite a bit smaller. There are 22 other crocodilian species scattered about the globe, but for some reason peculiar to the world of fashion it is a rare fop who would wish to own a pair of crocodile shoes, though the hide of the crocodile, once tanned, is scarcely distinguishable from alligator hide.
The differences between alligators and crocodiles are trivial except to zoologists and each other. It is not true, as popular belief has it, that a crocodile opens his mouth by raising his upper jaw while the alligator lowers his lower jaw. They both lower their lower jaws, just like us. Neither is it true, as the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Shakespeare believed, and as Sir J. Hawkins reported in 1565, that "His nature is euer when hee would haue his prey, to cry and sobbe like a Christian body, to prouoke them to come to him, and then hee snatcheth at them." "Crocodile tears" is a useful expression though founded on myth. But it is true that the female Galàpagos turtle, when laying her eggs, does weep—whether bitterly or for joy, no man can tell.
The crocodile is more slender than an alligator and gets about faster. His snout is pointed and narrow, whereas the alligator's is broad and blunt. When the alligator closes his mouth a big tooth on each side of his lower jaw fits into a slot in the upper jaw. The equivalent teeth of the crocodile remain outside the jaw. And the snout of the South American caiman, introduced into Florida's swamplands by people who decided that the critters were just not nice pets, is broader than a crocodile's, narrower than an alligator's.
In the marketplace, no distinction is made between alligator and crocodile skins, except that the skin of the Singapore crocodile, because the belly hide is so finely grained, is considered to be of the very finest quality and commands the highest price.
Arthur Edelman, owner of Fleming-Joffe Ltd., which deals in reptile skins, holds that, from a business point of view, "crocodiles and alligators are interchangeable—the only difference is in the spelling and the shape of the nose." A biologist would disagree but, in fact, just about any crocodilian leather, whether it be from a true alligator or a South American jacaretinga (caiman), is sold in the U. S. as alligator, and in France, which produces the very finest of such leather goods, as crocodile. The American bias in favor of the word "alligator" can be explained as based on familiarity with the word itself—early-Spanish explorers dubbed him el lagarto (the lizard) and Anglo-Saxons soon corrupted it—and on the strange mystique of fashion. At any rate, what American fashion plates want are alligator shoes, not crocodile shoes.
For the alligator, this has become a fatal fascination. It is illegal to kill him throughout his range, except in 40 Texas counties, and there are not very many of the reptiles in these counties anyway. But the poachers do kill him—by the thousands. Lax enforcement—Florida could use twice as many enforcement officers as it now has—and high demand have created a situation ideally suited to the financial welfare of poachers. This wily rascal is harder to catch than an alligator, and penalties are trivial. As matters stand, a gator poacher can get from $4.75 to $8 for each foot of hide he collects. A skilled man in a productive area can take a score of alligators, averaging five feet in length, in a single night. If caught, and few are, his fine will be a mere $75 or so, though Florida law now provides for fines as high as $1,000 or one year's imprisonment or both. Such sentences are rarely levied. Juries are reluctant to convict and judges arc loath to deal out punishment severe enough to be a deterrent.
The personality of the alligator, little understood by laymen, is responsible for this reluctance. He is not only considered to be ugly but dangerous to boot. In fact, alligators are not dangerous to humans if men do not abuse the privilege of observing them and just leave them to their own devices, which are 200 million years old and never have been a threat. Rather, they have been helpful. The alligator is the greatest conservationist known to the Everglades and other marshy areas of Florida, his hide (given controlled harvesting) could be an important economic resource, and his tail meat is said to be a delicacy. But he is being slaughtered at a rate that threatens his very existence. He has been added to the Department of Interior's "endangered species" list, along with the American peregrine falcon, the red cockaded woodpecker, and the Hawaiian coot.
The American alligator is found not only in Florida and Texas but in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. The Florida population is the highest, estimated at 300,000. That sounds like a lot of alligators but is only one-tenth of what it was a century ago. Encroaching civilization destroyed much of the gator's habitat. As breeding grounds shrank, his numbers diminished. Now the poacher is finishing the job.
In 1967 Peter Baran & Sons of Harrison, N.J. processed 10,000 alligator hides, all quite legally, even though almost all were killed illegally, and though the largest, Baran is but one of half a dozen important buyers. The year was one of drought in Florida and gators were found with ease in their shrunken water holes. They were slaughtered by the thousands, skinned and smuggled across the state border to such buying stations as Baran's in Waycross, Ga., and once across the border, no law enforcement authority could touch the smugglers.
Even now, with plenty of water and despite the poachers, it is possible in selected areas to find alligators with relative ease. One night this spring, escorted by Captain David E. Swindell of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, and Culver Giddens, refuge biologist of the Saint Marks Wildlife Refuge, we went into the forest equipped with powerful spotlights. When the beam from such a light strikes an alligator, his eyes glow red. We found them by the dozens. After 36 I stopped counting. But Captain Swindell estimated that the population in the area was down to 60% of what it had been 10 years ago.
Poaching, the captain said, breaks down into a cultural matter. "A man gets started in poaching because his daddy and his granddaddy did it," he explained. "A lot of poachers do it because they enjoy the element of risk involved, the joy of getting by with something."
In Giddens' opinion, "Most poachers are about as low as you can get."
"Many," he said, "are skilled plumbers, carpenters or welders but they won't work."
They are, in the main, Florida crackers who have neither understanding nor desire to understand the problems their depredations inflict upon the ecology of Florida wildlife, which are profound. Their background is rooted in the culture of the backwoodsman. Nature's bounty is all around them and historically has supported them. To ask a poacher not to kill alligators for their hides is like asking an impoverished Kentucky coal miner not to mine bootleg coal. But in Florida the implications of this pioneer philosophy are that poaching eventually will destroy not only the alligator's way of life but the cracker's. He may even have to go to work as a plumber, once the money lure is gone.
Typically, the poacher will go out on a dark, calm night because wind-ruffled water makes the gator less easy to see and a moon makes it easier for lawmen to see the poacher. The gator's habit is to lie quietly in the water and drift with whatever current may be running until something good to eat comes along. He is not aggressive about it, perhaps because he can go for months without food. Only a portion of his snout, his eyes and the merest part of his back are visible. The thing to do is to shine a light on the water until a pair of carnelian dots appear. The poacher draws close, usually poling a small boat, picks up a .22 caliber rimfire rifle, or even a .22 pistol, takes aim at one of the eyes and fires. If he is as good a shot as most poachers are, his bullet will drill through the eye and into the alligator's brain, which is a tiny target about the size of a small apple. That is sufficient to kill the reptile but even so it will thrash around until the notochord in the spinal column is severed, which can be done with an ordinary pocket knife. Then he is skinned on the spot. Only the belly hide is removed, except when a Japanese buyer lets out word that he is interested in full skins. The Japanese make novelties of the otherwise useless back skins.
A five-foot belly hide, after salting, can be rolled up to the size of this magazine. It is thus easily concealed. If the poacher suspects that a law enforcement agent is waiting for him to come out at his usual exit point he hides his skins in the marsh and returns to recover them on another day when the poachers' grapevine (they use two-way radio quite often) reports that the warden has moved on to another area.
Everglades is a town lying on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. It is charming to wander about in—small houses brilliantly white and softly pastel in the sun, and everything about it tidy. Fishing for tarpon and snook in the nearby Ten Thousand Islands is superb and the Rod and Gun Club, from which most sports fishermen put out, is an excellent place to stay and has a good dining room.
The population of the town of Everglades is anywhere between 500 and 700, depending on which native answers your question. It is a prosperous community, though with no aboveboard industry but fishing. Law enforcement officers believe that 250 male adults of the populace make their living poaching alligators.
In one seven-county area it is believed that there are 2,000 men who at least occasionally poach alligators. Poachers are not generally vicious, and shooting at government agents is rare, but one officer, asking to search a poacher's boat, was coolly invited to do so. His eye fell on a gunny sack. Opening it, he just escaped being bitten by a huge rattlesnake.
The .22 rifle is the most used weapon but some poachers prefer other, more silent, methods. Machetes, harpoons, ball peen hammers and ax handles are employed, too. (In Tanganyika crocodiles are netted.)
To get close enough to a gator to hit him on the head with a hammer is quite easy. When approached, the drifting alligator sinks beneath the water—closing his eyes and valves in his ears as he docs so—but he remains in the same spot. He can be raised by very gently lifting him under the chin until he breaks water. Then the poacher promptly hits him on the head, being careful to strike the brain area. This is not so dangerous as it sounds. A man with normally strong hands can hold a big alligator's mouth closed with just his thumb and fingers. The reptile's mouth-opening muscles are amazingly feeble. Not those, however, with which he closes his mouth.
Giddens, who lives with his family in a part of the forest, estimated that there are between 2,000 and 2,500 alligators in his 25,000-acre refuge. But there are more of them outside such protected areas, which include the Everglades, than in those which get what little specific protection there is.
"There are times when you'd swear there are no gators left," he said. "Then the rain comes and they'll be walking down the street and crawling along the ditches.
"At Homosassa Springs people feed them marshmallows and ice-cream bars. It's the most ridiculous thing you ever saw, to watch a 14-foot alligator fighting for a marshmallow. It has become a nuisance because they have lost their fear of man and even climb into boats looking for food."
Without fear of man, the alligator is truly dangerous, especially to children and dogs. O. Earle Frye Jr., director of the state's Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, told of an instance in 1959 in which an alligator was supposed to have killed an 11-year-old boy, whose body was found in the gator's cave. (They tunnel for as much as 20 feet into the banks of their water holes.)
"However," Frye said, "the bank was steep and the boy may have fallen into the water and drowned before the gator got to him. There have been reports of gators attacking people, and there is one case where a gator pulled a little girl into a pit. But this was a 'tame' gator and she had been feeding it. She started to scream and he let her loose.
"Our phone rings constantly in such places as Orlando about some little gator swimming in a lake and going to eat up everybody. But I would feel much safer swimming in the most gator-infested section of Florida than walking down a street with dogs yapping at me."
Frye, stressing that it was strictly a guess, estimated that there were somewhere between 25% and 50% fewer alligators in Florida than there were 10 years ago, when killing them became illegal.
"If it had not been for the illegal taking of alligators they would not have reduced in number, they would have come up," he said. "If we can completely protect alligators they would increase because there is plenty of land left for them."
The alligator is, in fact, prolific. After building a nest of mud and vegetation near water, the female will lay from 15 to 100-odd eggs. Both the sun and the decaying leaves and grass generate heat, and in an average of 66 days, depending on weather, the baby alligators, about nine inches long, emerge from their eggs. Their first instinct, even though they are voiceless, is to call for their mother, which they do by inhaling deeply and exhaling—a kind of snoring which in the male adult during mating season becomes a roar.
The mother protects her young for a year or two, while they feed on insects and fish but are constantly threatened by grown alligators, bobcats, raccoons and even large wading birds. In the end only a few survive. The survivors become the prey of poachers, almost free to operate without interference. Frye explained that his commission has only 125 officers in the state—"about half as many as we need."
What infuriates the officers is that when they have an iron-clad case, juries often will refuse to convict. One of the more ludicrous examples is that of a federal officer who saw a poacher enter Everglades National Park and kill 17 alligators. At 3 a.m. the officer turned on his floodlights and the poacher ran into the swamp. The officer waited and eventually the poacher came out, without the hides, and was arrested. In court he testified he had been bird watching and a Miami federal jury acquitted him. Bird watching at 3 a.m.?
Dr. Wayne King, curator of reptiles and amphibians at New York's Bronx Zoo, has been interested in the problem for the past several years, and recently as a gesture of protest shipped the zoo's four adult alligators and three American crocodiles (there are 3,000 of these in southern Florida) to Everglades National Park.
"Some have suggested brief open seasons for hunting alligators," he said, "but poachers have made it clear that they will not honor closed seasons. What is needed is federal legislation to control interstate traffic. State laws need toughening and there should be cooperation between the states."
One who agrees is Florida State Senator Warren S. Henderson. He has introduced bills which would:
1) Memorialize Congress to include the alligator in federal legislation providing for the protection of rare and endangered species. Further legislation would make out-of-state shipments of illegal alligator hides a federal offense.
2) Legalize payment of substantial rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of poachers.
3) Provide that if a suspected poacher, stopped in a place where alligators might be found, has a light and firearms or other weapons, possession of this equipment is considered prima facie evidence of his intent to violate the law.
4) Make imprisonment of poachers mandatory, along with confiscation of their boats, vehicles and weapons.
5) Prohibit the sale or offering for sale of alligator products in the state.
Whether Senator Henderson will get the federal help he hopes for has been made dubious by a letter Senator Ray C. Knopke, chairman of the Florida Senate's Committee on Natural Resources and Conservation, received April 22. It was from J.P. Linduska, associate director of the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, and in part it read:
"We believe that prohibiting the sale of alligator skins or products is neither warranted nor wise. Under good management, the alligator can be prolific and become too abundant. Removal by lawful means is necessary in some places even now. There is no good purpose served in denying the rational use of a valuable product of nature."
Linduska did concede that poaching is a "problem" and recommended that "every possible effort should be made to suppress it." But if it were truly suppressed there would be no need for a law prohibiting the sale of alligator skins or products, since virtually every alligator skin sold or processed now is taken illegally. Practical experience has pretty well established that suppression of poaching is all but impossible without federal laws containing teeth. If poaching is thus suppressed and the gators really do become "too abundant" it would be a simple matter to harvest the surplus.
At present there are 16 bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and three in the Senate which deal with endangered species of wildlife and contain provisions to improve protection of the alligator. One House bill, co-sponsored by all members of the House Subcommittee for Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation, calls for fines of up to $10,000 or one year in prison or both.
Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel, and his predecessor, Stewart L. Udall, both have asked for stronger legislation to protect endangered species. Returning from a trip to the Everglades not too long ago, Secretary Hickel urged "stiffer penalties for the interstate trafficking in hides from illegally taken alligators."
Conservationists in Washington have high hopes that some kind of bill for protection of endangered species, including alligators, will come out of this Congress. Little opposition has been voiced anywhere.
The last open alligator-hunting season in Florida was 1959-60, when 18,735 alligators more than six feet long were sold to hide dealers. Mere illegality has not significantly reduced that number, if at all, and the black-market price has risen.
There are those who do not like the alligator and would feel no pang if he should vanish utterly, but in fact he is vitally useful, however ugly, to the ecology of such areas as the Everglades. During drought the only water in the swamps may be found in gator holes—ponds which he makes himself. As the water level drops, the alligator digs deep, using his powerful tail, his hind feet and his mouth, eventually providing a haven of scarce water for birds, animals and game fish. When the drought ends they scatter over the swamps, their lives saved by the alligator. Some of them, to be sure, will have been eaten by the gator, who feeds on fish, turtles, snakes, wading birds and water plants. And, of course, marshmallows and ice-cream bars. Just about anything, in fact. But he does more good than harm.
There was a time, nearly 200 years ago, when William Bartram, describing a Florida river, could truthfully write: "The alligators were in such incredible numbers, and so close together from shore to shore, that it would have been easy to have walked across on their heads, had the animals been harmless."
No one wants to be hip deep in alligators, of course, but it will be a sad day to many people when some shoe or pursemaker stamps "last alligator" on one of his products.