TED Case Studies

Alligators in the 90's

TED Home Page About TED Research Projects Sort
Cases Issue Papers Site Index

I. Identification

1. The Issue

Alligators are close to extinction for several reasons. First, alligators are killed for their skins, which are used to make such items as boots, briefcases, purses and wallets. Second, alligators are killed for their meat. The reptiles are often exported, as well as used in their countries of capture, for these purposes. During the 1960s the American Alligator was placed on the endangered species list. However, by the late 1970s, this reptile had expanded in number and, hence, was taken off the list. Today, it is very common to see alligator farms across the southern United States, as alligator skins are sold for leather goods and in the South alligator meat is considered a delicacy.

2. Description

The American Alligator (Alligator mississipiensis) is found only in the southeastern part of the United States, from the Carolinas down to Florida and over to Texas. The Chinese Alligator (Alligatorsinensis) is very rare and can only be found in the Yangtze River Basin in China.

Where and How They Live

Alligators inhabit primarily fresh water to brackish water areas, although they can occasionally be found in salt water. However, alligators lack the salt-extracting glands of crocodiles and are unable to survive in salt water for extended periods of time.

The largest populations of alligators are found in Florida and Louisiana. In Florida, alligators can be found in almost every single body of water, with the highest concentrations being in the Central Florida to South Florida region. Examples of prime alligator habitat are swamps, marshes, lakes, and drainage canals.

Alligators are carnivorous reptiles whose primary feeding time is at night. Small alligators will eat snails, frogs, insects,and small fish. Larger gators will eat fish, turtles, snakes, waterfowl, small mammals, and even smaller alligators. Examinations of alligator stomachs have even yielded such objects as stones, sticks, cans, fishing lures and other assorted items.

Alligators swallow their food whole. The teeth of an alligator are cone-shaped and are made for grabbing and holding, not for cutting. When dealing with a larger prey, an alligator may shake its head or spin its body in order to tear off a piece small enough to swallow. They have also been known to hold food in their mouths until it deteriorates to the point at which they can swallow it.

An alligator possesses a specialized valve, called a glottis, in its throat that enables the gator to capture its prey underwater. However, in order to swallow its food, an alligator must lift its head out of the water.

Protection of the species

The American Alligator, although protected by both state and federal laws, has become a viable resource in today's aquaculture. The alligator is prized for its hide and meat. The hide of the alligator is considered a fine and durable leather, used for boots, wallets, purses, shoes, briefcases, and other leather items. The meat of the alligator is considered a healthful delicacy, low in fat and high in protein. Not just the tail, but all of the meat of the alligator is edible, and is sold in restaurants throughout Florida.

Records show that the alligator was first used commercially during the late 1800s in Florida. During the early to mid 1900s, the harvesting of alligators was unregulated, leading to depletion of alligator populations. In 1943, concerns over the alligator's population decline led to the establishment of a four foot minimum size limit to define harvestable gators. Despite this regulation, the decline continued, and in 1954 a statewide six foot minimum size limit was imposed. However, this regulation also did little to stop the alligators' decimation, and in 1962 the harvesting of alligators was banned.

During the 1960s the alligator population continued to diminish. Poaching of the alligator was widespread, and because of a loophole in state laws, authorities were unable to shut down an interstate network of illegal hide dealers. Finally, in 1967, the American Alligator was placed on the first Endangered Species List. In 1970, federal regulations were imposed that effectively shut down the illegal alligator market, and the populations of alligators began to rebound. It has been speculated that perhaps the alligator population was never as low as originally thought, but that the alligator had just become more adept at eluding humans.

In 1977, the alligator was reclassified from an endangered to a threatened species. This change in status allowed the alligator once again to be available for commercial use. During the 1980s the alligator came to be viewed as a renewable resource, and several alligator management programs were instituted by the State of Florida. These programs allowed for controlled hunting of the alligator by private individuals and the collection of eggs and hatchlings by licensed alligator farms.

Alligator farming is now a thriving business, with an estimated 30+ alligator farms in the State of Florida. This multi-million dollar industry generates approximately 300,000 pounds of meat and over 15,000 skins a year. Alligator meat averages $5-$7 a pound wholesale, and while skin prices vary year to year, the average price is $25 per foot. Currently, it is estimated that the state of Florida is home to over 1,000,000 alligators, not counting those raised on commercial alligator farms.

3. Related Cases

Reptiles, crawfish, and sharks.

4. Draft Author:

Guillermo Celaya, February 20, 1998

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status:

Historically, alligators were depleted from many parts of their range as a result of market hunting and loss of habitat, and 30 years ago many people believed that this unique reptile would never recover. In 1967, the alligator was listed as an endangered species (under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973), meaning it was considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. But a combined effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies in the South saved these unique animals. The Endangered Species Act prohibited alligator hunting, allowing the species to rebound in number in many areas where it had been depleted. As the alligator began to make a comeback, states established alligator population monitoring programs and used this information to ensure alligator numbers continued to increase. In 1987, the Fish and Wildlife Service pronounced the American Alligator fully recovered and consequently removed the animal from the list of endangered species.

The case has been closed in the sense that the American Alligator has been removed from the endangered species list.

6. Forum and Scope:

Forum: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Scope: Florida, United States, unilateral agreement

7. Decision Breadth:

Only the states of Florida and Louisiana, in the United States, have been affected by this Act.

8. Legal Standing:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has received information that raises concerns about the conservation implications of the export of live American Alligators (Alligator mississipiensis). On June 24, 1997, the Service published a notice in the Federal Register to request submission of any information that may be available on the impact of exports of live American Alligators. In this Federal Register notice the Service announced their intent to review all available information relating to such exports to determine to what extent the export of live alligators meets the Convention for International Trade and Endangered Species and Service criteria for permit issuance. In addition, the Service recently denied an application for a permit to export live alligators, and other applications currently in process raise questions concerning eligibility.

This will allow the Service to examine the potential impact of future exports of American alligators on the species, on other crocodilian species, and on American alligator conservation programs. Information collected will be used in evaluating current and future permit applications to ensure that any permits issued comply fully with all requirements, including Executive Order 11987, Exotic Organisms. If requested, a public meeting or meetings will be used to assist the Service in analyzing the information. While the Service will continue to review applications on a case-by-case basis, any general policy or determinations developed as a result of this review will be published in the Federal Register for notice and comment. Copies of this Federal Register notice are available upon request from OMA.

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: North America

b. Geographic Site: Eastern North America

c. Geographic Impact: United States

10. Sub-National Factors:


11. Type of Habitat:

Temperate forest and plains

IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure:

Until recently, the American alligator was threatened with extinction by a powerful adversary: the world economy. The lucrative hide trade provided a major financial incentive to scour the nation's swamps and bayous for the legendary alligator and its valuable skin. Land-use policies, water pollution and the demand for agricultural products also adversely affected the sensitive wetland habitats the alligator relies upon for food and shelter.

Federal protection and state management have afforded the alligator a second chance. Hunting regulations constitute one factor in the alligator's recovery. Even more importantly, the alligator's economic value -- the very trait that made it susceptible to over-hunting -- has become an ally of its restoration. State officials forged this relationship by allowing landowners to harvest a percentage of the alligators on their property. This innovative program creates an incentive to increase alligator populations through habitat restoration and protection. Landowners have enthusiastically endorsed this approach, protecting more than 500,000 acres of wetlands for alligator production.

Using a combination of traditional and innovative regulatory programs, federal and state officials have succeeded in saving this unique species, and in 1987 the American Alligator was removed from the endangered species list.

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts:


14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: An export ban on alligators was instituted in order to prevent alligators from being killed for production purposes. Additionally, there was a domestic ban on alligator products.

b. Indirectly Related to Product: NO

c. Not Related to Product: NO

d. Related to Process: YES

15. Trade Product Identification:

Alligator Products: Boots, briefcases, purses and wallets

16. Economic Data

The alligator industry generates approximately 300,000 pounds of meat and over 15,000 alligator skins each year. Furthermore, the price range for a pound of alligator meat varies from $5 to $7. It is estimated that a foot of skin is priced at $25.


The world market for crocodilian hides is forecast at approximately 2,000,000 by the year 2000. This projection is based on a reported world market for 300,000 crocodilian hides in 1980 and a modest annual increase in demand of approximately 10% to 15%. The value of raw products from a 6- to 7-foot alligator is considered to be approximately $300. Value of the finished products may be in excess of five to ten times the raw product value. Finishing and merchandising of raw alligator products has the potential to become a major industry. An important added benefit in the alligator industry is that marginal or presently non-productive land can be used.

Demand for alligator hides and meat has been well-established in our society since the last century and doubtless will continue in the future.


The American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) appears similar to other reptiles in its reproductive physiology of reproduction. Ovulation occurs once each year between March and May in the northern hemisphere. Egg laying occurs during June and July with hatching in August and September after approximately 65 days of incubation. The ideal temperature for egg incubation is 86F. The female alligator must mate each breeding season in order to lay fertile eggs. Follicles that are not ovulated during a breeding season undergo regression. Ovulated follicles are fertilized and travel via the oviduct to be laid 45 days later. All eggs are laid at one time.

Farm alligators have yet to reach the level of reproductive efficiency of their wild counterparts. In order to attain a hatching rate of 1000 young alligators each year, it is estimated that 70 females and 25 males will be required in the breeding herd. Current figures from farms indicate that 70 percent of the females will nest each year, averaging 35 eggs per nest, and resulting in a 60 percent hatching success rate.

These alligators reach a length of five to seven feet within 36 to 42 months. A thousand hatchling alligators are produced each year, with a mortality rate not exceeding 10% over the three year growth period. This translates into nine hundred marketable alligators each year after the third year of operation. In a heated growth environment, food consumption will be approximately 30 pounds of meat per year during the first year of growth, 125 pounds in the second year, and 250 pounds in the third year. Animals in the breeding herd will consume approximately 400 pounds of meat per animal per year.

Alligators are cold blooded reptiles which become dormant or inactive in cold weather. Alligator farming as a commercial enterprise is most suited for the Southern and Southeastern areas of the United States. However, it is feasible that, with the correct facilities, some areas in other States may be adapted to a farming enterprise.


There are two different approaches to alligator farming. The first method is a completely integrated operation which maintains its own breeding stock, hatching facility, nursery facility and a grow-out house. Following laying, the eggs are collected and artificially incubated, and the hatchling alligators are then raised in the grow-out house to a marketable size of between five and seven feet.

The second method is a growout operation (sometimes referred to as a feedlot) only. With this operation, hatchling alligators are purchased from a farm or ranch specializing in the production of hatchlings. Hatchlings may also be available from State agencies which regulate the wild population.

The following specifications and costs for a low-cost alligator farm are based primarily on the actual practices of alligator farms. The farmers are able to lower their costs by doing much of the construction work themselves, buying used equipment, using less space per alligator, and using lower cost building designs. The low-cost farm requires four years to reach full production and produces 900 alligators per year.

A utility building of 800 square feet is constructed at the beginning of the first year of operation. The building has an incubation room, space for a cooler and freezer, and a storage room. There is no office or nursery. The hatchlings are transferred to the grow-out building immediately after hatching.

A low-cost farm also has three grow-out buildings. The first one is built at the beginning of the second year in order to house the alligators during their first year. The building is constructed of concrete with two rows of pens. The building is less than four feet in height and accessible through hinged roof panels along the perimeter of the building rather than through a central walkway. The total area of the building is 2,000 square feet.

A second grow-out building of 7,300 square feet is built at the beginning of the third year and a third building of 10,300 square feet is built the fourth year. The design and construction of these buildings are the same as for the first one.

17. Impact of Trade Restriction:

State and Federal Law

18. Industry Sector:

Non-durable manufacturing, textiles and apparel. Meat is also a factor, though not as significant as consumer products.

19. Exporters and Importers:

V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type:

At one time it was feared that the alligator industry could lead to the extinction of this reptile.

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

Name: American alligator

Type: Mississipiensis


22. Resource Impact and Effect:

During the 1960s the American Alligator experienced depletion problems. That is, it was close to extinction. In this sense, the impact was high. The effect was regulatory. At this point in time, however, the American Alligator is no longer close to extinction; therefore the impact is low.

23. Urgency and Lifetime:

The American Alligator has already been taken off of the endangered species list.

24. Substitutes:

There is no substitute for the American Alligator.

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture:


26. Trans-Boundary Issues:


27. Rights:


28. Relevant Literature




Go to All Cases

Go to TED Geography