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Louisiana Alligators: From Threatened to Thriving

A national conservation success story has emerged from an unlikely place – the swamps of Louisiana. The reversal of fortune seen with the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) illustrates the benefit of allowing economic and environmental interests to work in tandem.

Amid concerns of a population decline, Louisiana closed its alligator harvest in 1962. The alligator became totally protected five years before being listed as an endangered species. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) then began an extensive study of the state’s alligators. For 10 years, they surveyed the population. And after that decade, LDWF felt confident that alligators in Louisiana were doing just fine.

However, a challenge remained to re-open the harvest: the alligator now appeared on the endangered species list. Thankfully, LDWF’s research paid off. They successfully lobbied for an exception to the Endangered Species Act. In 1974, alligators were again harvested in Louisiana.

“With the protection during the 1960s, and the associated research, the idea of managing alligators as a renewable resource was developed – with both a wild harvest and the concept of farming that began in the late 1970s,” said Mark Shirley, Louisiana Sea Grant and LSU AgCenter Extension agent. Shirley has been assisting land owners, harvesters, farmers and skinners for the last 30 years.

As the alligator population grew, so did the industry – with the most profitable product being skins for purses, boots, belts and more. Top designers from Gucci and Hermes still travel to Louisiana for quality skins. Over the last decade, the gross value of skins topped half a trillion dollars.

In addition to expanding the market for skins, the alligator industry has been adaptive in creating new markets. For example, now there is a market for meat which grosses millions of dollars annually.

And the population of alligators is doing just as well. LDWF continues its monitoring – both on the farm and in the swamps. They oversee the wild harvest in September and tag and release a percentage of farm-raised juveniles. “Alligators have become one of the most intensively managed wildlife species in the world and one of the most successful conservation stories of any species,” said Shirley.

Now it seems that the adaptability that has marked the alligator industry will once again be tested. With both domestic and international markets impacted by global economic uncertainty, luxury items purchases declined last year. As a result, tanneries have a surplus of skins in inventory and are calling for a drastic reduction to this year’s harvest. This will translate into lower prices for both farm raised and wild harvested skins.

If past challenges are an indication, the alligator industry will continue to find creative solutions. Shirley said, “The industry has seen this kind of adjustment in the market several times over past decades. Such downturns usually bounce back after a year or two.”

One promising avenue is alligator biochemistry. By extracting chemicals from leftover alligator carcasses, researchers at Louisiana State University have been able to extract valuable collagen, keratin and hyaluronic acid. These have applications in wound healing, aging creams, ointments and inflammatory medications. This promising early research could mark another success for the alligator industry.