Considering their malevolent image, it's surprising alligators have survived in such good shape as long as they have. Other large North American predators -- the grizzly bear, wolves, panthers -- were nearly hunted out by fearful settlers. Alligators were quickly eradicated at the fringes of their range, but in their Deep South heartland, they hung on by the millions until after World War I.
Alligators weren't threatened until the fashion industry decided their skins were chic. By the 1920s, 200,000 Florida alligators annually became boots, shoes, wallets, purses, luggage, curios, belts, even clocks. Alligator hides commanded top dollar, and suddenly, Southern marshes were crawling with market hunters out to make an easy buck. Hide hunters decimated the species over large areas in a relatively short time. The decline was intensified by government agencies, agricultural interests and others hell-bent on draining America's wetlands.
Fewer than 10,000 Florida alligators were taken in 1943, although the season was open and prices were high. It was no different in other alligator states. Louisiana lost 90 percent of its alligators between 1938 and 1958. Alabama's were almost gone by 1941, when it became the first state to give the creatures complete protection. Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi followed suit in the 1960s, Texas in 1980. In 1967, they were declared an endangered species and granted full protection.
Vigorous law enforcement, effective management and remarkable resiliency allowed the alligator to recover in much of its range. It now seems secure from extinction and was pronounced fully recovered in 1987. Alligators remain on the threatened list because they are similar in appearance to the listed American crocodile and other crocodilians subject to import.
Arkansas alligators are still fully protected as a threatened species, but populations are growing thanks to increased protection and a restoration program conducted by the Game and Fish Commission. From 1972 to 1984, over 2800 juvenile Louisiana alligators were relocated in southern Arkansas. Successful reproduction has occurred in several counties, and today's population stable.
Alligators play a vital role in wetland wildlife communities. Their deep water holes are important for other wildlife, especially during drought. They help control populations of many nuisance animals and are also valuable for biomedical studies. They possess a secondary palate like humans, and embryos are used in experimental microsurgery that may one day be applied to human embryos with palate developmental problems.
Alligators are also one of the best examples of man's ability to revive threatened wildlife populations. In Arkansas, we have a lot less alligator habitat that we did in the 1950s. But we have a lot more alligators. That proves that if we control overhunting and manage habitat right, even it it's man-made habitat, then wildlife has a chance.