Scanning the lush banks of the Chattahoochee River, Bob Hinson cranes his neck from atop his rumbling airboat. Annoyed herons - great blues and greenbacks - crane back amid the water oaks.
But the grumpiest river resident is nowhere to be found. Itching to become one of the first to hunt alligators here in 36 years, Mr. Hinson, a gold-watch-wearing furniture dealer from Columbus, Ga., isn't too concerned about the lack of gator sign during a humid day's sojourn deep into the Chattahoochee's swamps.
"Don't let 'em fool you," he says with a knowing grin. "There are some monsters out here."
After mass hunts made the alligator an endangered species in the 1960s, these lethal logs are today a conservation success story in the South. Bans on hunting in the 1960s and 1970s allowed the reptiles to replenish their populations to the point where, even with the return of commercial harvesting of gators in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana, their numbers keep growing.
Now Georgia is about to become one of the last states in the "alligator belt" to lift its ban on hunting, reviving an old sport and a debate over whether this is the humane thing to do with one of earth's oldest descendants.
As in other states, the purported impetus behind the move here is too much of a good thing: Alligators have become so plentiful that they are showing up uninvited in subdivisions and on golf course greens. A few are reported to be such frequent guests that they have their own handicaps. In other areas, they are eating too many trophy bass.
As a result, the state this fall will give out 180 permits for hunters to begin culling from the estimated 200,000 alligators that now inhabit the low country of Georgia. Unlike in Florida and Louisiana, these won't for the most part be commercial hunters. The commercial hunters left the state long ago.
Instead, to the consternation of some animal-rights activists, state game managers are now turning to a new breed of Crocodile Dundees - many of whom drive SUVs instead of boats - to hunt alligators for sport. "[Other states] have more of a commercial harvest, where ours is more of a sportsman's season," says state biologist Greg Waters, who's managing the new hunt, opening in September, for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. "I'd say 98 percent of the hunters will probably be inexperienced as far as catching alligators."
Florida now has dozens of gator guides skimming Lake Kissimmee - and Louisiana's bayou dwellers bring in some 32,000 gator hides a year as part of a $54 million commercial industry.
In fact, Louisiana has been able to successfully encourage private landowners - who own most of the alligator range - to keep their lands undeveloped and survive on commercial harvesting alone. Those states also have plenty of old swamphands to thin populations. "[Louisiana's game managers] don't just allow any John Doe off the street to apply [for a permit]," says Noel Kinler, the alligator program chief at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Even for the experienced, however, hunting alligator is not like landing a pan fish. First of all, a full-grown bull gator can weigh 500 pounds and be as fast on the sprint as a quarterhorse. Never mind that they've had 18 million years to grow comfortable in these mocha-colored waters. (All of which may explain why only 75 hunters so far have signed up for the 180 permits in Georgia.)
Still, hunters don't need an Australian accent to catch one. Going out mostly at night, where he or she is allowed to use a light to "spot" eyes in the swamps, the hunt captain lunges the airboat toward the animal while the "spearman" lurches for the target. Then the "rope man" keeps track of a buoy attached to the spear tip, chasing the gator until it's exhausted. Usually something goes wrong, Hinson says: Either equipment fails or the animal outwits his pursuers.
When the chase is done, hunters have to manhandle the gator up to the boat and either ensnare it or euthanize it with a "bangstick" - a javelin rigged with a .44-caliber shell. "When you've got him up to the boat, your heart just goes boom-boom-boom," says Hinson, a veteran hunter who is built like a linebacker.
Wildlife managers don't foresee any deaths among the hunters, but they do expect injuries. The state is even putting on seminars to help hunters stay safe. How not to get ensnared in the infamous alligator "death roll" will be one topic of conversation.
So far, the public seems eager to see the hunt succeed. At least one swimming hole this year was closed because an 11-foot gator was a frequent guest. Catfish ponds are being raided. Several alligators recently broke into a fish hatchery in Wilcox County, Ga., and dined on bass.
Last year, 450 "nuisance" gators were taken in Georgia - a number that's growing. And trouble is on the increase, especially in Florida, where alligator attacks have gone from about five per year to more than 14.
Still, not everyone likes the idea of killing alligators, even if they're plentiful. Some animal rights activists and biologists fear that hunting trophy bull alligators, which are worth the most money, targets the most successful creatures, destabilizes local waterways - and perhaps invites even more trouble.
"It's better to try to coexist with the animal that is present than remove them and potentially bring in ... a greater problem," says Camilla Fox, the national campaign director for the Animal Protection Institute in Sacramento, Calif.
Others say alligators can, in fact, be managed to coexist with humans with the help of volunteers.