- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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.