They're not crazy, just very careful

EVERGLADES — It's 7 a.m. in the marsh, and like some sort of cigar-chomping swamp cowboy, biologist Lindsey Hord is about to reach for something that could cost him a few fingers — or worse — if he's not careful.

It's the first day of Florida's annual alligator egg collection program, a yearly ritual to replenish stocks for the state's gator farmers.

Hord and other airboat pilots fire up their engines, giant fan blades spinning until they growl, and slowly glide out into a canal, voices crackling over their radios. A helicopter swoops overhead as a nest spotter.

Hord roars up to a small island and peers into the brush for a nest that to the untrained eye looks like just a patch of wet dirt.

Bingo.

He kneels beside the mound, carefully pulling apart the mulchlike mass of dark, damp weeds. Over his shoulder, just a few feet away, mama gator's bulbous eyes float ominously on the water's surface. She's watching, but keeping her distance.

"Her cave is right here somewhere, that's why she's nesting here," Hord says.

He gently pulls the eggs from the dirt and swipes a line on the tops with a black marker before placing them carefully in a plastic bin lined with muck to keep them warm.

"If they're not marked and we roll them over, it'll kill the embryo," Hord says.

To some, this might seem, well, crazy. For Hord, who helps coordinate alligator management in a state with more than a million of the prehistoric, toothy reptiles, it's another day at the office.

"You always have to watch your back," Hord says. "Usually, they will hiss and snap and make all kinds of noise, but I've had them just literally sneak up on me."

Each summer, scientists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission help collect up to 40,000 eggs for 30 farmers who share in the catch.

Each farmer gets roughly 1,000 eggs for about $12 a pop, money that pays for the hunt and funds future alligator management programs.

By day's end, the crews collect more than a thousand eggs. Not a bad start to the roughly 20-day season.

The American alligator has made a miraculous recovery, bouncing back from the brink of extinction. In 1967, after years of overhunting and habitat loss, the gator was listed as an endangered species. But conservation efforts and hunting regulations led the federal government to pronounce the alligator fully recovered 20 years later.

Biologists say the egg collections don't harm the gator population, since a typical female lays about 35 eggs, the reptiles can reproduce for 25 years and they only need a few viable babies apiece to keep their numbers healthy.

Experts say the collections can actually help since the more alligators there are, the lower the survival rate for their young.

Since the collections began in 1988, roughly 600,000 eggs have been gathered and distributed to farmers, who can make up to $100,000 a year in profits by selling the hides (flawless ones go for about $240) and meat, which can fetch about $12 a pound retail or $6 wholesale.

Gators produces up to seven pounds of meat, most of which is sold domestically, while the hides go to European tanneries to be used for products such as boots, belts, wallets and luggage.

Only pristine, unscathed hides fetch high prices. The gators are fed daily to keep them from being aggressive, and their heated, indoor concrete pools are kept clean of pebbles that could scratch the skin.

They're not crazy, just very careful 07/19/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 19, 2008 10:17pm]

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