Farm Alligator Returns. Sounds like the title of a children’s picture book, doesn’t it? Far from kids’ play, the return of alligators is big business in coastal Louisiana. Several times a year in the low-lying areas of brackish, intermediate, and freshwater marshes, a curious practice takes place. One must pay close to attention in order to witness the event, because not much fanfare precedes it.
So it was that I stumbled upon this interesting occurrence early one hot and humid June morning. An odd combination of outboard boats, airboats, and livestock trailers crowded the boat launch, where men scurried back and forth from the trailers to the various boats, hauling burlap sacks filled with fragile cargo.
Camera in hand, I approached the men, asking what they were up to on this fine morning. They chuckled as though I’d said something comical. Too busy to be bothered by the likes of me, they continued their work. Since they didn’t run me off, I continued poking around, looking in the trailer, snapping photos, until one kind soul finally took pity on me, saying, “Hey! We’re returning gators to the marsh! Wanna see?”
Does an alligator have teeth? Sure I wanted to see, and I wanted to ask a thousand questions, too. The nice young man then pulled a three-foot gator out of a burlap sack and explained to me that the young gators came from an alligator farm, where they had hatched a couple of years before. He explained to me that a percentage of all wild eggs hatched on alligator farms in Louisiana must be returned to the marsh from whence the eggs were collected.
Harvesting of alligator eggs is big business in coastal Louisiana. This 12% annual hatchling return is part of the State Alligator Program and has proven very beneficial to sustaining the state’s wild alligator populations. While doing these returns is a costly process for the gator farmer, it is an integral necessity of the program, considering the large number of eggs collected each summer. Additionally, returning the young reptiles after they reach two to three feet in length significantly increases their chances of survival, as opposed to hatching in the wild.
Now that we know why the young gators are returned, let’s talk about how they are returned.
Before leaving the farm, the youngsters are measured, sexed, tagged, tail-notched and recorded. Tail notching is the actual cutting of a pattern in the tail to indicate that it came from a farm. This knowledge provides the state program with valuable information about the gator–its age, when it was released, its growth rate, and how long it survived in the wild after release–if captured in the future.
In preparation for the transport, the ranch hands place big rubber bands around the gators’ snouts to prevent any accidental bites. They next place the gators in burlap sacks, tie the ends with a cord, and then tie them to the railing inside livestock trailers. Once the trailers reach their destination, a fleet of outboard boats and airboats meets them at the landing, where the workers then transfer the sacks onto the various boats. The boats then travel to the areas of marsh from whence the eggs came, where the sacks are opened, the bands removed, and the gators set free.
If you’re concerned that these toddler reptiles, having been farm fed up to this point, can’t fend for themselves, worry no more. These creatures instinctively know how to hunt for their meals in the wild. Keep in mind, too, that being released at this age and size increases their chances of survival in the wild. Meanwhile, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) continues to monitor the positive impacts of this return program.
If you’re wondering just how prolific American alligator populations are, wonder no more. During the 2012 alligator egg harvest, gator farmers collected 413,648 eggs, resulting in 349,514 hatchling alligators, of which 24,489 made it back into the wild. During the 2012 month-long alligator hunting season, hunters harvested 34,376 alligators with an average length of 7.5 feet. The same year, farmers harvested 280,000 farm-raised alligators, with an average length of 4.25 feet. In 2013, farmers released another 32,166 farm raised alligators into the wild. As of January 2013, there were 55 licensed farmers in Louisiana with on-farm inventories totaling 565,036 alligators. That’s a lot of alligator purses, my friends.
The State Alligator Program is a prime example of bringing back life to an endangered species and sustaining those thriving populations. However, this article just barely scratches the surface of this complex and multi-faceted program. For now, rest assured that the LDWF has everything under control and that the American alligator is alive and well in Louisiana. Furthermore, with the decrease in demand for animal-hide products, there is a big chance that we might soon be requiring the services of the “Nuisance Alligator Program”. But that story will have to wait for another day.
Gator tails to you!