No one is certain how endangered the American alligator ever really was. But even now, with red eyes gleaming out of swamps from Texas to Virginia, the alligator is too commercially valuable to ever be altogether safe.
On the endangered species list since 1967, the alligator was removed from the list throughout its entire Southeastern range at the end of last month. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service claims the alligator as a rare success story for an endangered species.
While some once feared that the alligator would never recover from overhunting, no doubt remains that the prehistoric reptile is back at full strength.
Alligator hunting remains tightly controlled, however. Alligator-skin shoes, purses, and watchbands are not likely to become any cheaper or easier to find. Because worldwide the hide market remains a danger to crocodilians - the alligator and its cousins - state and federal agencies plan to monitor and regulate it.
All American alligators are now listed as ``threatened by similarity of appearance.'' This helps to protect endangered species in the crocodile family, since only an expert can tell the hide of an endangered crocodile or the similar caiman from an alligator's hide.
Proof that an alligator was killed legally must follow alligator products throughout their treatment and manufacture in the US. Imported goods made from crocodilians must also be documented for legal harvesting. ``Overall, they're very endangered,'' says James Kushlan, biologist at East Texas State University.
Crocodilians, says US Fish and Wildlife spokesman Don Klinger, are ``one of the few endangered [families] that really has an overwhelming commercial value to it.''
Crocodilians are notoriously difficult to count. Florida officials estimate that 1 million alligators populate the state. Their numbers are obvious in the Everglades, where passing motorists can spot them cruising ponds and canals. Experts still disagree on how many alligators there were in 1967, when they joined the endangered species list.
Fifteen of 21 crocodile species are still endangered. Three quarters of the million skins traded each year come from South American caimans, not endangered, but threatened, says Ginette Hemley, who monitors wildlife-products trade for the World Wildlife Fund. Over half the crocodilian products in US department stores, she estimates, are illegal.
The still endangered species include the American crocodile, an alligator cousin with a longer, narrower snout that prefers the warm, saltwater shallows and mangrove marshes of Florida's southern tip. Crocodiles may never have been any more numerous than now, but their hold in south Florida is precarious.