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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 Gal�pagos 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.