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Alligators' Success Story

By Paul Thompson

This is Steve Ember. And this is Shirley Griffith with the VOA Special English program, EXPLORATIONS.

Not too long ago, the American alligator was in danger of disappearing from the Earth. Today we tell the success story of this animal.

When Spanish explorers reached what would become the southern State of Florida, they found a long, fierce green animal. It had a wide head and a large mouth that opened to show up to eighty teeth. The Spanish explorers called this dangerous creature "El lagarto." The words mean, "the lizard." In time the Spanish words would change to the modern English word, "alligator."

For many years, the huge green animals were hunted and their territory destroyed. Their tough, beautiful skin was made into shoes, belts and other leather products. Their natural territory was used to build roads, streets, homes and cities. For years the American alligators were disappearing faster than they could reproduce. Scientists knew the animal was in danger of disappearing from the Earth.

In Nineteen-Sixty-Seven, Congress approved a law that would protect the American alligator. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced rules for saving the animals.

To better understand the situation, come with us for a few minutes. We will take you to a large hole filled with water that is the home of an American alligator.

The water hole is in the extreme southern part of the state of Florida. It is in a land area protected by the federal government -- the Everglades National Park.

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A large green animal slowly comes to the surface of the water. At first, only its eyes and front of its long nose can be seen above the water. It moves very slowly in the water without effort. Its long tail moves slowly from side to side. From its nose to the end of its tail it is almost three meters long.

The animal is hungry. But it is in no hurry. It caught and killed a small deer several days before. It attacked the deer that had come to the water to drink. Then it hid the dead deer under water. Now the alligator wants to eat.

It is the hot dry summer season now. There has been little rain for several weeks. The huge reptile dug this large hole that is filled with water.

Digging the hole has taken the alligator several years. Each year the hole became bigger and deeper. Digging was slow hard work. As the animal dug with its short legs, it pushed away the plants it found. Some of the plants grew around the outside of the hole. Seeds from trees blew into the area and grew where the alligator had pushed dirt and mud out of the hole. Now, the huge water filled hole was surrounded by many different kinds of plants and trees.

Millions of liters of water are just below the surface of the ground, so the large hole is always filled with fresh, clear water. In the dry season, other animals come here for the needed liquid. Other animals and birds are able to survive the dry season because of the water hole. And, the other animals became a fresh supply of food for the dark green alligator, which did not have to leave home to hunt.

This alligator is a large female. Several weeks before, she had built a nest above the water. She had laid almost forty eggs. Each egg was just a little larger than that of a chicken.

She had covered the nest with wet plants and mud. She had been carefully guarding the nest since she placed the eggs there. The sun and plants had kept the nest and the eggs warm.

Early this morning she heard the sound young alligators make when they have left the egg. Because the eggs were so well protected by the nest, the young alligators can not climb out.

The mother alligator opens the nest area to permit the small reptiles to enter the water. They weigh only about sixty grams each. They are about twenty centimeters long. As the young leave the nest, birds come to the area. Within an hour, birds eat twelve of them.

The mother alligator tries to protect her young. She will protect them for almost three years. But even an alligator can not protect all of the young that leave the nest. Until they grow large enough, the young alligators are in danger of being eaten by birds and other animals.

Yet in time, each of the young alligators who survive will become a fierce looking animal up to four meters long. Each one will be a ruler of its own small area. Each one will be a dangerous hunter.

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The story we just told could have taken place ten thousand years ago. Or it could be taking place today. The alligator is a very ancient and successful creature. It has not changed much since the time huge reptiles called dinosaurs ruled the Earth.

The Everglades National Park is home to many thousands of these huge green animals. When the alligators began to disappear, scientists started to understand the effect of the animals on the environment of the Everglades area.

Without the alligators to help provide water, other animals could not survive the dry season. Without the water holes dug by the alligators, fewer plants and trees would grow in the area. Scientists discovered that one kind of turtle places its eggs near the alligator's nest. The turtle depends on the alligator to survive. The turtle is only one of several animals that needs the water provided by the alligator.

The American alligator is a real success story. It is a good example of how federal and state laws helped an animal increase in numbers.

In Nineteen-Sixty-Seven, the Federal Government declared the alligator to be endangered. Laws were passed that said it could no longer be hunted. The government also approved laws to make it illegal to buy and sell products made from alligator skin.

Government scientists began projects in Louisiana, Florida, Georgia Texas and South Carolina. These are states where the alligator is found in the wild.

The projects called for some alligators to be raised on farms. More than one-hundred-fifty alligator farms were built in the states of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. All of these farms were linked to a central program that supervised the project to increase the number of alligators.

Scientists started the farms by collecting eggs and young alligators from their natural area. These alligators were cared for and protected.

The young alligators were returned to natural areas when they became large enough to survive on their own. About seventeen percent of the alligators raised on farms were returned to the wild. Others were kept on the farms to reproduce.

In a little more than ten years, the number of the animals surviving increased. Government records now show that more than three-hundred-fifty-thousand alligators live on farms. Many of these farms no longer belong to the government. They are businesses that use the alligator as a crop.

Leather products from the alligator can once again be found for sale. Some eating places offer alligator meat. However the farms and alligator products still are carefully controlled.

The federal government also learned that helping the alligator recover called for educating the public about what can be a very dangerous animal. In the past, alligators were killed if they came anywhere near a population center. Now, special workers remove them if possible and take them back to wild areas.

The public has been taught about how to live with alligators. For example, Alabama now has about thirty-five thousand alligators living in natural areas. State records show there have been only five recorded alligator attacks on people. While these attacks were serious, no one was killed.

In Nineteen-Eighty-Seven, the federal government declared the American alligator to be fully recovered. It was no longer considered to be an endangered animal. Yet many protection measures remain in place to make sure the population of alligators does not decrease.

Today, visitors to the southern state of Florida can see many alligators at the Everglades National Park. Park workers show visitors alligator water holes, young alligators, and huge adults. Alligators can also be seen in great numbers in many other areas where they live in the wild.

The alligator is a success story today because of the work of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Yet it is only one animal the agency is working to help survive. Five-hundred-eleven animals are on the list of those that need help if they are to survive into the future.

This program was written and produced by Paul Thompson. Our studio engineer was Keith Holmes. This is Steve Ember.

And this is Shirley Griffith. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program in Special English on the Voice of America.


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