Louisiana alligators were once on the brink of extinction. Today, there are more than ever on the coast. Hunting alligator is a way of life for thousands of Louisianans. But it’s becoming less profitable, as foreign imports flood the market and drive down prices. Fewer hunters are heading out to the swamps each fall.
Reggie Little has been hunting alligators since he was a young man. Now he’s nearing 75, it’s a little hard for him to get in and out of the boat.
His younger buddy, Mike Pitre, helps him load up in 2 O'clock Bayou, just outside Opelousas, near Lafayette. Two rifles , a cooler of water, some buckets, hunting tags, and a couple of life jackets for good measure.
The morning sun sparkles on the black water as Little and Pitre set out to check the traps they set last night. They hung a piece of chicken from a hook on a piece of rope over the water attached to a flag on a bamboo pole. If the flag is down, that means an alligator took the bait.
Pitre slows down the boat, grabs a rope and starts pulling, tugging an alligator close to the boat. He pulls the alligator’s head up, hands the rope to Little and aims the rifle.
Pitre pulls the alligator over the side of the boat and lays it on the bottom. It’s only about four or five feet long. Then he sticks his knife through the end of its tail and slides a yellow plastic tag through it.
This tag is part of why the alligator population in Louisiana is thriving.
Jeb Linscombe is the head of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ fur and alligator programs, which issue the tags. He calls the recovery of the species a classic wildlife success story.
Linscombe says, “We really don’t know how many alligators were being taken in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, because there was no record, but many, many hundreds of thousands of animals were harvested for their hides.”
In the 1970’s, the state started a new program - it got people to go out into the swamps and look for alligator nests in the spring, take the eggs, and bring them to farms. The farms raise the baby alligators for about four years, when they’re big enough to survive on their own, and then let them back into the wild.
Now, there are two million on the Louisiana coast.
People started hunting them again, and found it profitable. Louisiana alligator skins were shipped across the world for high-end fashion designers to make into expensive jackets and purses. The state says the wild alligator market is worth about $10 million.
But over the past couple of years, things have taken a downturn. Linscombe and other experts say an oversupply of crocodilian skins from foreign markets, especially in Asia, Africa, and Australia, have driven down prices for Louisiana alligator skin.
Linscombe say that means fewer people are out hunting, resulting in a below-average alligator harvest this year and last. He says it’s hard to say whether the industry will continue to be profitable in the future.
Some tanneries are starting direct marketing campaigns, by trying to drum up demand for wild Louisiana alligator skin for high-end fashion designers in New York and Italy. Some hunters are becoming hunting guides - taking other people out, for money, instead of hunting themselves.
Little and Pitre are looking into becoming guides. They will take the seven alligators they killed today to a local processor and bring home about $500. That’s not a lot when you calculate all of the hours the two men spent setting traps, buying gas for the trucks and boat, and driving back and forth to the swamp and the processor.
But Little just likes to be out in swamps, where he grew up, mucking around with Pitre. He says he won’t quit until he dies, and thinks a lot of people feel the same way.
Little says, “They don’t care if they make $5 or $50.” He says people like to go out to their hunting camps with their families and kill a few alligators and it doesn’t matter whether they make any money or not.
For now, the fact is, hunting alligators is a hard way to make a living. But for many, it remains part of what it means to live on the Louisiana coast.
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** Correction 10/11/19 : An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to "shotguns" in the piece, which were never used by the hunters. The corrected version refers to "rifles." **