Swamps Élysées: Meet the Queen of Gator, Georgia’s Christy Plott Redd

The self-proclaimed monarch holds court from the bayous of Louisiana to the posh boutiques of Paris. Her calling card? The skins of the American alligator.
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Photograph by Alex Martinex
Photograph by Alex Martinez

Christy Plott Redd says she likes to take the fancy out of fashion, but on a recent afternoon in Manhattan—her auburn hair falling in carefully curled waves beneath a mink hat, her eyelashes pressed into thick half-moons over shadowed lids, her teeth flashing white in an outline of Smashbox fuchsia lipstick—the fancy was very much on display. She wheeled behind her a suitcase the size of a small car. Inside were dozens of alligator skins, samples she was toting around to sell to big-name fashion designers—Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta—for their next collections.

Redd is 36 and the creative director, head of global sales, and co-owner of American Tanning and Leather, a family tannery based in Griffin, Georgia, 40 miles south of Atlanta. But she introduces herself by a far more flamboyant title: the Queen of Gator. It’s her handle on Twitter and Instagram. “La Reina” is engraved on her silver ID bracelet; “Queen of Alligator” is embroidered inside her mink coat. The tongue of her right pink-and-green Nike running shoe says “Gator”; the left says “Queen.” A pink-trimmed calling card is letterpressed with her title and a crown (she’ll tell you it’s her personal card, not her business card, and gleefully dole out one of each).

The title is self-appointed. Several years ago, Redd heard about an alligator buyer from Italy working in Florida and calling himself the King. This was annoying. For one thing, there are no alligators in Italy. Live ones, anyway. More importantly, royalty is demonstrated by blood line, and nobody in the world can lay claim to one more established than Redd’s, whose great-grand­father founded the family business almost a century ago in Blairsville, whose grandfather served time in prison for illegally selling alligator skins in the 1970s, and whose father did too, for that matter. American Tanning is the oldest and largest alligator tannery in the country—and one of the only major ones in the world. Alligator mississippiensis, the American alligator, has been establishing its foothold in what is now the southern United States—its sole habitat—for 180 million years. The Plotts’ regional lineage may stretch back a mere 200 or so, but in any case, what family’s fortune has been entwined with the alligator’s for longer than theirs? Certainly no Italian arriviste’s.

Tanned alligator hides stretched out to dry.
Tanned alligator hides stretched out to dry.

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

In New York, Redd had scheduled back-to-back appointments: One hour, she had a meeting at a flashy Madison Avenue headquarters; the next, she was in a streamlined downtown studio with a young designer. Redd has been making calls like this (in New York, Milan, Paris) for nearly 15 years, and it’s not uncommon to find her in settings that couldn’t be farther—geographically, culturally, metaphysically—from the rotting reeds of the swamps where her raw material is captured. But she refuses to be intimidated, a gator out of water.

“I don’t like mean girls,” Redd explained. “People say I am down to earth. I’m from Griffin, Georgia, and I treat these people the same I would anyone else.” In other words, she’s got fishermen and farmers on speed dial, but she’s wearing diamonds—preferably her long marquise-shaped earrings by designer and customer Opal Stone, wife of actor Ron Perlman.

On this day, the prospective buyers were coming to Redd’s hotel room, where dozens of hides—in a shape evoking their previous owners, legs and tail dangling—were spread across the desk and slung over the backs of chairs. Redd used one hide to tie back the drapes to let in more sun. The general scaliness, compounded by colors not found in nature, could prompt a shudder in the uninitiated.

One potential customer was an Upper East Side handbag maker who had never bought alligator before. She had an idea: a clutch that would take advantage of the button-sized hole at the top of the tail of every hide, as a way to toggle it shut. Redd didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, that’s the butthole,” she said. “It would be a little butthole clutch.” Then she gently suggested a magnet closure instead.

During the Civil War, alligator leather was used out of necessity for Confederate boots, and in the following decades, it became fashionable for its unique tiled texture and suppleness. Susan B. Anthony, never known as a fashion icon, famously carried an alligator bag in which she kept her speeches and pamphlets, as the rise of the purse paralleled the rise of women’s rights. In the early 20th century, reptile was fetishized for its exoticism, and it was used often for travel bags and luggage by European leather goods houses like Hermès, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton—still the biggest players in alligator fashion today. By the 1930s and 1940s, nearly every high-end manufacturer was producing alligator bags, and if you did not have one, you would not have been au courant.

But alligator harvests went unregulated, and in 1967, the species was listed as endangered. Soon after, the federal government imposed bans on interstate alligator sales.

By the time of the ban, the Plott family had been in the animal skin business more than 40 years. At the beginning, they didn’t trade in alligator at all. In 1923, when Jake Plott founded the Georgia Carolina Fur & Ginseng Co. in the mountains of North Georgia, he bought foxes, raccoons, possums, mink, and muskrats from local hunters and trappers, acting as a collection agent for furriers in New York and St. Louis, then the country’s fur capital. The work was seasonal, confined largely to the winter months. Jake’s son, Q.C., continued the business in Chamblee. The Plotts would scrape the hides, clean them, air-dry them, and ship them raw. Q.C.’s son, Chris (Redd’s father), recalls spending his after-school hours stripping fat off dead raccoons.

Chris Plott in the 1960s, before gator skins became contraband in Georgia.
Chris Plott in the 1960s, before gator skins became contraband in Georgia.

Photgraph courtesy of American Tanning

It wasn’t until the early 1960s that Q.C., looking for a summer business to complement his winter fur trade, started buying alligators from hunters, trappers, and fishermen in Louisiana and Florida. After just a few years, alligators represented half of the family’s business.

After the animal was declared endangered, Q.C. continued to buy—illegally—from poachers. (“He was a bit bullheaded,” Chris Plott told me.) In 1969, the Georgia Game and Fish Commission declared alligator skins contraband in the state. Q.C. didn’t hide his resentment; he took it straight to the DeKalb County Superior Court, charging that the new regulations were “an unconstitutional extension of the legislature’s authority to pass laws.” He lost the suit.

In 1972, Q.C. was busted with a shipment of nearly 5,000 alligator skins headed from Savannah to Japan. Father and son pleaded guilty to 67 counts of buying, selling, and shipping illegal skins. He and Chris, just 24 at the time, both served time, but not much: Q.C. served just half his six-month sentence, and Chris himself was free after 57 days. The convictions were considered a slap on the wrist—the penalty could have been 66 years in prison. But their business was effectively shut down.

“When we came out we were flat-ass broke,” Chris said. “We didn’t have two nickels to rub together. Not only that, but we had a lot of debt too.”

Q.C. had a big collection of guns, so the pair opened the Plott Trading Company sporting goods store in Brookhaven. A gun-loving exec at a local chemical company offered to help get their fur business back off the ground with financing.

Christy Plott was born in 1979, the same year that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, encouraged by a rebound in the alligator population, agreed to resume the legal trade of alligator on a strictly regulated basis. The idea was that alligators were such a valuable commodity, landowners would be more inclined to protect the animals’ habitat. Commerce could benefit conservation.

That year, at an auction in Florida, Chris Plott scooped up the first legal alligator skins available in more than a decade. But because the alligator trade had been closed, there wasn’t anyone around to tan them. With 5,000 skins in hand, he decided to build his own tannery. In 1980, American Tanning and Leather was born. Q.C. died of cancer that same year, at 56, leaving Chris to handle business on his own. American Tanning’s first hides were displayed at a show in St. Louis, but they weren’t up to par. Chris went to Europe and brought back a French tanner to advise him. Every year, he said, he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on alligator, subsidized by his fur business.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service declared the alligator population fully recovered in 1987, things got easier for him, and in the early 1990s, Chris started to make a profit on alligators. Lucky for him, because around the same time, fur was on its way out—thanks in no small part to high-profile, celebrity-spiked animal rights protests, like PETA’s 1994 ad campaign featuring five supermodels claiming they’d “rather go naked than wear fur.” Before long, the wild fur business was nearly defunct, and the Plotts went all in with alligator.

Christy Plott Redd with her father and brothers between tanning drums.
Christy Plott Redd with her father and brothers between tanning drums.

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

For my first meeting with Redd, I drove down to Griffin, passing feed and seed shops and a boarded-up barbecue joint along the last mile, until I reached the 1940s-era brick factory building on Pimento Avenue. American Tanning was once the home of the nation’s largest pepper cannery.

Inside the tannery, a vast warehouse space compartmentalized for different stages of production, Redd and her brothers work closely alongside the 25 employees who convert the raw skins into leather. Redd will don a white lab coat to grade skins; her brothers are often in heavy-duty aprons and boots in the refrigerated raw room, which smells like week-old oysters.

The 30,000 skins the factory processes each year arrive in salted, rolled, refrigerated bundles, courtesy of year-round harvests from alligator farms; periodic catches by nuisance trappers; and, in late summer, hunters and fishermen. About half of AmTan’s skins come from farms, the other half from wild harvest. By far, the most wild gators come from Louisiana, where the Plotts bought a processing center in 2008. During hunting season, the Plotts stake out along the Atchafalaya Basin in St. Martinville, the birthplace of Cajun culture, to purchase whole alligators, typically from commercial fishermen who buy from the docks. At their facility, the meat is separated for sale to seafood dealers; the skins are salt-cured and shipped to Griffin. There, the skins are converted to leather in a series of steps that includes preserving, stretching, drying, chrome dyeing, and polishing. Midway through the process, the skins are said to be “in crust.” The Plotts stock crust year-round, awaiting orders for specific hues and finishes, after which they emerge in a Skittles spectrum of colors, with names like Tahiti, viola, suntan, and pretty-in-pink. Like diamonds, they are graded for quality on a five-point scale—one being the highest tier and accounting for, usually, just 10 percent of the wild skins. Redd’s older brother Damon and his team first grade the skins in raw, then Christy grades them in both crust and in their finished state, looking for any scar or scratch that could render them less valuable. In this relationship-based business, the tanner determines the grade, and if a customer isn’t happy, they ship them back. The risk is that they could switch to a competitor, so the tanner aims to please.

In January, with last season’s skins in crust but many not yet sold, shelves in the crust room were stacked high with the grayish leather, and yellow shopping carts spilled over with sorted bundles. Redd said they represented about $5 million worth.

She put her red manicured fingertips together as if preparing for a dive and said, laughing, “I’m like Scrooge McDuck diving into his money pit—only mine’s filled with alligator skins.” She drew the last word out into two syllables.

After graduating from University of Georgia in 2002, Redd was offered a job in IT at General Electric. She chose the family business instead, with one condition: She would handle sales. Up to then, Damon—and before that her eldest brother, Chandler—had been the one meeting with designers and their teams to figure out how they could use alligator in their next collections. Damon, who becomes animated only when discussing his hunting dogs, told me he cares about fashion “only as it relates to my pocket.” It is hard to picture him across the table from a Louis Vuitton exec. He is much happier hauling off the swamp bounty himself and putting the raw skins through a sophisticated chemical treatment called the “wet-end production” of the process—the first steps in making leather. Chandler oversees most of the finishing, including color.

In college, Redd’s idea of high fashion was shopping at the Encore boutique in Athens, but she was determined to become an insider in the luxury world. “I got all the fashion magazines I could get my hands on,” she said. “And I made a list of everybody I wanted to work with. I read “Women’s Wear Daily;” I read “New York Social Diary.” And I wrote notes—hand-written letters—and I was persistent, and people started to call me back.”

At the time, most of their accounts were with belt and boot makers; Redd’s effort secured accounts with Oscar de la Renta, J. Mendel, Proenza Schouler, the Row, and even some local designers—Sid Mashburn, W.Kleinberg, and Jada Loveless. With all of them, she treats sales like girl talk. “She knows about what’s going on,” said Maria Reich of Oscar de la Renta Fur. “She knows about jewelry, she knows about fur, she knows about makeup. It’s fun, but it’s also important for what she does.”

Redd examines a finished hide in the glaze room, where skins are made glossy with an agate wheel.
Redd examines a finished hide in the glaze room, where skins are made glossy with an agate wheel.

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

Redd attributes much of the company’s recent success to the partnership the company struck in 2007 with a family-owned Italian tannery, Whiteline, based near Florence. The collaboration allows American Tanning to essentially consign skins via Whiteline, giving the company a European arm—especially important given that almost all luxury leather products are produced in Europe (mostly in Italy) and because of tight regulations in transporting alligator products internationally. Whiteline, in turn, gets a steady source of the limited supply of skins.

It’s a world where competitors are few but fierce. With the available supply of alligator skins carefully managed by authorities, AmTan must square off against luxury conglomerates that couldn’t be farther from the swamp—Hermès, Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (or LVMH, with subsidiaries like Dior, Givenchy, and Marc Jacobs), and Kering (formerly the Gucci Group, with brands such as Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, and Saint Laurent). In recent years, with the trend toward vertical integration, the conglomerates have raced to snap up the world’s top leather suppliers—once mostly family-owned farms, factories, and tanneries in Singapore, France, and Louisiana. When Kering purchased France Croco in March 2013, it left just a handful of major independent reptile tanneries in the world, and AmTan one of the only ones in the U.S. There aren’t now—and never were—many people who straddle the worlds of bayou and boutique.

“The fashion business is made up of a lot of people that I can’t relate to very well,” said Chris Plott from the windowless AmTan offices. He wore a camo hat and shirt and was rolling chewing gum around in his mouth. Although Redd may be the public face of the company, she and her brothers still answer to their father, who remains a majority owner of AmTan. “I was raised in the country; I like to hunt and fish. And our customers—that’s not their bag of rocks, you know? So can I go sit down and eat dinner with ’em and share some conversation with them? Limited, I would say. Limited. Because it’s like, I’m from the moon, and they’re from Mars. Our whole lifestyles are totally different. But Christy, she enjoys it. And she likes the perks, she likes to get all shined up. She likes the attention that it brings her, I think. She feeds off of this business.”

Redd’s real talent is building relationships, her father said. “I have to give credit where credit is due: Christy can sell ice to an Eskimo. She has a great gift of gab, and she is not intimidated by the devil himself. She’s the first one to send a thank-you note; she’s the first one to send somebody a birthday note; she’s the first one to host a dinner.

“Can she unload a truck of eight-foot alligators? No, she cannot. But she’s got enough moxie about her that she can get somebody to unload ’em for her.”

In early February, Redd flew to Paris for Première Vision, a fashion trade show. With major design houses scouting for materials for their upcoming collections, PV, as it’s called, is one of the most important events of the year for designers and top-tier suppliers. That it fell just before New York Fashion Week this year and few Americans could be there did not seem to be an important consideration for the big dogs of European fashion. Redd laughed that it was a “sham show” because she’d already sold all of her grade-one skins, the ones the luxury brands are most interested in. But for her, these shows are really just a chance to build new relationships—and size up the competition.

On the plane, Redd slept with a monogrammed Louis Vuitton scarf over her head and then applied a generous dose of makeup upon landing. Her nails were painted light pink with a black stripe on the edge, inspired by a page in “Vogue.” “I’d rather cut my hand off than have a chipped nail,” she said with complete seriousness.

Redd is drawn to the shiny like a barracuda. And with her exuberant self-promotion, she could be a redheaded Middle Georgia Kardashian cousin. But with everyone, she asks a lot of questions with genuine interest. I once heard her sincerely volunteer to be a surrogate mother for a friend’s wife who was having trouble conceiving. She is constantly buying gifts—especially ones that match her own. “That’s the eighth-grade girl in me,” she explained. On the flight, she was wearing a pair of suede booties she’d just bought from her friend’s shop in Griffin, which tends to supply the pieces in her ensemble that do not have four- or five-digit price tags. She told me they were “awesome,” were marked down from $120 to $40, and what was my size? She would text her friend to hold them for me.

Her Instagram is filled with funny-faced selfies, #TBTs of her and her dad or from her beauty pageant years, nail art, music shows, gator skins, and quotes like, “You can’t have a million-dollar dream with a minimum-wage work ethic,” and “Here in the South, we don’t hide crazy. We parade it on the porch and give it a cocktail.”

On Rue de Verrière she stumbled upon a streetwear shop called CLVII. Inside, she admired the hoodies and Swarovski-encrusted Nikes, then the owner and creative director, Julien Léonard, introduced himself. That morning, Redd had photographed her new custom alligator Air Force 1s from the rooftop deck of her hotel, the Eiffel Tower as backdrop. She showed Léonard the picture and described her business.

It turned out they had a mutual affection for couture-loving Atlantan Marjorie Harvey, wife of TV personality Steve. Then a hip-hop song pulsed out of Léonard’s skull-shaped speaker. Redd started to dance, shouting above the music that her friend, Young Lyxx, used the same beat in one of his songs. As she wrote down for Léonard the name of her favorite zipper supplier and a factory she wanted him to check out—he’d be at PV buying the next day—she asked him, “Do you know anybody over here who promotes for these guys to come here and play? I’m gonna send you his mixtape.”

That night, back at the hotel, we ran into the Italian family—three handsome sons, all with alligator briefcases, and their elegantly scarfed mother—that owns Italven Pelli, one of the only other independent alligator tanneries in the world. Redd exchanged ciaos, double-cheek kisses, and pleasantries in Italian, then they launched into a discussion of the latest who-bought-whom gossip. “Oh, I heard you guys were already bought by Cartier and Richemont,” she said. They all shared a laugh.

The big luxury houses are like looming hawks in this industry, where goods made from alligator or crocodile leather can sell for as much as 30 times those of their mammalian counterparts. The mom-and-pop era of tanneries like the Plotts’ is increasingly a relic of the past. But to get picked off may not be all bad—Redd once likened a buyout to getting asked to prom.

The next day was set aside for market research: visits to the luxury shops to examine what was on the shelf, check prices, and ask what was selling best. Decked out in all black, with a mink coat fit for a trip to the Bolshoi Theatre and mirrored aviators ($9.97 from an L.A. gas station, she pointed out proudly), we set out for Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In all of the glittering showcases we visited, the alligator goods were prominently displayed in windows and in bright locked boxes near the front of the store.

At Ralph Lauren on Boulevard Saint-Germain, she exclaimed how “inexpensive” the Ricky bags were—14,400 euros compared with $22,500 in the U.S. “I’m going to have to talk to them about that,” she said afterward in the car.

And at Prada on Avenue Montaigne, she examined a tan bi-fold alligator bag for 32,000 euros, sitting nonchalantly beside a mannequin on a display table. A sales­woman delivered two more tiled handbags.

“That’s crocodile,” Redd said, pointing at the new deliveries.

“Yes,” the woman replied, smiling.

“This is alligator,” Redd said, holding the tan bag.

Still smiling, the saleswoman pointed back and forth, “It’s the same leather.”

“No,” Redd said, launching into a lengthy explanation. The woman replied, “You know a lot.”

This confusion between the alligator and its typically international cousin, the crocodile, is common, even among people charged with selling the five-figure products. There are actually 23 species of Crocodilian, with varying degrees of conservation statuses, according to the international conservation organization the Crocodile Specialist Group (which, it should be said, is funded in part by the industry)—from critically endangered (like the Chinese alligator) to least concern (the American alligator). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the alligator as “threatened due to similarity of appearance,” though it is not actually threatened itself: There are an estimated 2 million wild gators in Louisiana alone, or almost one for every two people. It’s to prevent a poacher from trying to pass off one of the gator’s lookalike brethren that is threatened or endangered as your basic Louisiana swamp haul.

But Redd can spot the difference between species at first glance, thanks to subtleties like the pores on crocodile scales that alligators do not have. Most of the luxury leather goods are made from three species: the saltwater (porosus) crocodile from Australia and Indonesia, the American alligator, and the Nile (niloticus) crocodile. Their value tends to be ranked in that order.

A few doors down from Prada, at the Louis Vuitton store at the base of the LVMH headquarters, she pointed to a row of reptilian bags on a shelf. One by one, she moved her finger along: porosus, niloticus, alligator, niloticus. Outside, we passed another display with tiled bags in the window. “Fake,” she scoffed, breezing past, barely stopping to look. “That’s embossed leather.”

She could have been blowing smoke, but there would be no one to tell her otherwise.

Première Vision is an aesthete’s dream. Not because it is a beautiful place—it’s in a 60-acre expo center in the gritty outskirts of Paris and resembles, say, AmericasMart or the Cobb Galleria—but because of all the beautiful things inside. Modern white booths separated suppliers of lace, brass hardware, horn, ribbon, embroidery, beading. There was a Swarovski exhibition and an ocean of fabric suppliers, with gauzy laces and nubby florals and raw linens. American Tanning and Whiteline, who exhibit together, were in the leather section, with their alligator skins draped with tails dangling from racks. Several sections were dedicated to the four “colors of the season,” as determined by Pantone months ahead of time: a sort of teal, coral, taupe, and a tan that one of Redd’s alligator buyers dubbed “heinie.” The buzz was the euro’s low exchange rate, “the situation in Russia” (not good for the alligator garment business), and the Swiss franc (a problem if you’re making a lot of watch straps).

I asked Redd why designers would choose her product over her competitors’. She pointed at the garment-ready skins draped on the rack. “Nobody can make skins that soft. Nobody. Go look around—feel them,” she insisted. (I did; she’s right.) “And we can do it faster. We can do smaller quantities. And a lot of the others won’t sell certain things to certain brands because they’re owned by a brand.”

Earlier, we had visited with the jolly Albert Koh, whose family’s Singaporean tannery, Heng Long, was bought out by LVMH for $124.2 million in 2011. (The Koh family reinvested and still owns 49 percent of the business.) He told us his father was taking the whole company—all 200 employees on three planes—on vacation to Japan the next day. Redd asked if he was hiring.

A few years ago, before the Koh purchase, the Plotts met with LVMH execs and were given the grand tour of the Louis Vuitton store on the Champs Élysées. “The friggin’ Sultan of Brunei was there looking at a $100,000 trunk, and they were practically pushing him out of the way to get us coffee,” Redd said. “Of course, I was really, really happy for the Koh family, but I was also super jealous.”

Given Christy Plott Redd’s sense of style (she has a calf-length J. Mendel alligator coat worth $65,000) and decorating taste (leopard carpet and a canopied bed for her tiny dog), combined with the guts and gore of her industry, it comes as no surprise that she was the subject of a reality show. The pilot never aired, but that wasn’t the end of her TV career.

Just the week before flying to Paris, Redd appeared in an episode (“Swamp and the City”) of “Swamp Pawn,” which stars one of her buyers, Rick Phillips of Phillips Seafood in Bayou Pigeon, Louisiana. When Phillips and his wife visited New York, guess who was called upon to advise an alligator shopping excursion? I was riding with her in her white Mercedes in Griffin when Phillips rang her up to talk about it.

The whole notion of publicity seems to follow her. In fact, during the full tour of the Griffin tannery, Redd will take you across the loading dock into another building owned by the Plotts, currently leased for the filming of the Sundance Channel show “Rectify.” She’ll show you the various sets—death row, the courthouse, the trailer home (“this is my favorite, because I feel most comfortable here,” she said in a mock redneck accent), repeating, “How cool is this? How cool is this?” She is so close to the production that the show’s lead actress, Abigail Spencer, rents a house from Redd for the months they are filming; Redd’s husband, Evan Redd, lives primarily in Palm Beach for work. Spencer was on “Jimmy Kimmel” last summer talking about Griffin, the new Kroger there, the alligator tannery next door, and Redd herself (“I really, really like her”).

People have taken such a keen interest in bayou culture and the swamp/Champs juxtaposition that these reality shows have become part of regular conversation in the industry. It has affected the fishermen (and who gets permits), increased the value of gator meat, and just made the general population more curious.

Waiting for the train from the expo, Redd called out to her friend and former partner, Silvio, a skinny Italian in a pinstripe suit who buys and sells skins. “Hey Silvio, I’m just as famous as you are now!” Then to me: “Silvio was on “Swamp People.” They called him the ‘Italian designer’ and gave him subtitles.” To him: “It’s okay, Silvio, they do them for the Cajuns too.”

 

“If you want to save an alligator, buy a handbag.”
Really? It’s a 40-year-old adage in Louisiana—and it’s true, according to Ruth M. Elsey, a biologist manager with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “Some people think total protection is the way to save any species,” she says. “But that’s not always the case.”

Photograph by iStockphoto.com
Photograph by iStockphoto.com

Louisiana has more gators than any other state, and most habitat is privately owned. The biggest threat to the species is habitat loss, and eco-responsibility is not always enough to incentivize landowners to protect their wetlands.

But because the alligator is a valuable commodity, commerce can benefit conservation. The harvesting of alligators, both wild and farmed, is highly regulated, as established by an international trade agreement called CITES. Each year, scientists set a property-specific number of alligators and eggs that can be collected from the wild based on population. All live gators are immediately tagged with a government-issued number that stays attached to the tail until the hide is turned into a finished product. Landowners are paid for each egg and live gator. In nature, just 12 percent of hatchlings will grow to at least four feet. (Juveniles face floods, raccoons, and cannibalism.) Farmers who collect eggs incubate the hatchlings, and once young gators are between three and five feet, the farmers are required to release 7 to 20 percent of their haul (on a sliding scale based on size) back into the nesting habitat. The rest the farmers can sell.

The state is paid a fee for each gator harvested, which funds this annual research. Georgia, home to 200,000 gators, does not have an egg collection program, but there is a small-scale hunting season, and “nuisance” gators can be harvested. In Louisiana, alligators are an $80 million-a-year business, so the state is also a beneficiary.

University researchers, plus state fish and wildlife agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, agree sustainable use is an effective conservation tool. The organizations we contacted (WWF, Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Nature Conservancy, the Humane Society of the United States) have no independent research on the topic; several referred to the states’ data.

But everyone agrees the rebound of the American alligator is a success story, if population is any indication: Around 4 million gators are currently roaming the Southeast.

This article originally appeared in our April 2015 issue.

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