When 18th-century naturalist William Bartram explored Florida's St. Johns River, he found alligators so plentiful "it would have been easy to have walked across their heads had the animals been harmless."
The reptiles' numbers and menacing jaws proved no protection against the human onslaught that pushed the Florida alligator to dangerously low numbers and onto the federal endangered species list by the late 1960s."There were times when the fate of the alligator didn't look too good," said Allan Woodward, head of the alligator research unit for the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.
But now there are so many alligators, thanks to preservation and the animals' resilience, that a month-long alligator hunting season opens Thursday.
"I can say we've all been pleasantly surprised by how fast the gator has rebounded," Woodward said.
Florida's first widespread hunt in 26 years - small-scale experimental hunts have been held since 1981 - sets a maximum of 15 alligators for each of 238 license recipients who were selected at random from 5,000 applications.
It's not just sport. Alligator hides sell for $42 a foot and their meat brings about $5 a pound.
Wildlife experts credit strong anti-poaching laws adopted in 1970 as instrumental in nearly doubling the alligator population in Florida to 1 million and removing the animal from the endangered species list in 1977.
The Lacey Act sought to close off lucrative markets for poachers by making interstate transportation of alligator products a federal offense. Poaching is now only a state offense, with a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine or a year in jail.
"We made a pretty good living off the gators before they stopped it," said Norm Padgett, 66, who will guide some of the novices in the hunt.
Alligators' adaptability also contributed to their proliferation, Woodward said.
They can generally tolerate encroachment of homes and highways. As marsh and deep-water areas diminish, alligators have learned to thrive in man-made canals or even roadside ditches and golf course water hazards.
"As long as there is food and water and a place to sun themselves, that's what makes a gator happy," Woodward said.
Despite their laconic behavior, they learn quickly to be wary of humans, and their keen night vision and acute smell and hearing can make them an elusive prey.
"They're not as dumb as some people seem to think. Their skittishness is an asset for their survival," Woodward said.
Officials say the upcoming hunt is confined to areas where exceptionally high alligator populations could force the animals to relocate or starve.
In Texas, which resumed alligator hunts in 1984, about 1,400 gators were taken last year. Louisiana officials reported about 23,800 gators were killed last year in the state's 30-day season, which has been held since 1972.
Participants in Florida's hunt - many of them city dwellers who have never stalked gators - will be armed with harpoons and "bang sticks," which fire a cartridge upon impact with a captured gator. Guns are prohibited because the animals often sink after being shot.
"It's just an adventure that I never thought I'd go on," said Thomas Alpern, a free-lance writer from New York City, one of only two non-Florida residents who won licenses. "I'll just try to have fun and get some gators."
Alpern will be one of the many inexperienced gator hunters hiring veteran trappers as guides.
"It's a good relationship," said Mike Rafferty, who exterminates nuisance alligators for the state and plans to guide several hunters. "For the new hunters, it's excitement. For me, it's business."