Exotic leathers have a bad reputation. They're often associated with unethical practices and illegal trade in endangered animals. However, the industry is diverse, and all exotics are not alike. For instance, the story of American alligator is an amazing example of how the exotic leather trade can be used for good. And of how we can fix our past mistakes.
Alligators are a vitally important species. They've existed mostly unchanged for 200 million years. During dry spells They dig “gator holes” that bring groundwater to the surface. These provide refuges for aquatic life, and fresh water and food for other animals. Alligators build nests that provide nesting and feeding sites for egrets and herons. They help maintain populations of game fish, and keep areas of open water free from invading vegetation. Without alligators, the ecosystem would change drastically and many species would disappear.
Unaware of all this, people once considered alligators a dangerous nuisance. They overhunted them for meat, hides, and sport. Poachers often killed them illegally and sold them on the black market. Also, alligators' swampy wetland habitats weren't considered valuable, so many of them were destroyed due to agriculture and development. Because of this alligators were nearly extinct by 1967. That year they were one of the first animals added to the Endangered Species List. This put them under the protection of federal law.
Since then, intense regulation (alligators and crocodiles are the most regulated species on Earth) and responsible management have brought alligators back. They're one of the first real examples of conservation success. In fact, the alligator population recovered so rapidly they were removed from the Endangered Species List in 1987, just 20 years later. Now alligators number in the millions. And, while they’re still protected by the federal government, they’re now considered to be “LC” (species of Least Concern). Which is the same label humans have.
Surprisingly, this was accomplished by commercializing them. A well-regulated market for alligator hides and meat has made raising alligators a lucrative business. Wetland owners now have a financial incentive and resources to maintain their land in its natural state, allowing alligators to thrive. The money also goes toward captive breeding programs. Alligator farmers collect eggs from the wild each year. They raise the baby alligators until they’re capable of surviving on their own, then release a percentage of them back into the wild. Far more alligators survive this way than had they been raised in the wild from the time they hatched. This allows the population to stay strong.This conservation-through-use program protects alligators and the wetlands they inhabit. This in turn protects all the other flora and fauna in the area that might otherwise risk extinction. Also, we now know alligator habitats are crucial to the environment. Wetlands are huge in the fight against climate change. They sequester far more carbon (up to 50 times more) per square mile than rainforests. So, investing in alligator leather is investing in one of the world’s first and most successful animal conservation programs. It's brought alligators back from near extinction in the past, and is a step toward a healthier planet in the future.