In Louisiana alligators are everywhere. From Bourbon Street T-shirts to bowls of rice and sauce piquant in Lafayette. Although the alligator isn’t the official emblem of the state, if you own a car in Louisiana, there’s a good chance you’re driving around with a license plate that says, “Sportsman’s Paradise.”
What’s that got do with alligators? Well, leaving aside the obvious sexist implication, there are a number of ironies about this state-sanctioned “Sportsman’s Paradise” slogan. Firstly, despite the exemplary records of the Saints and the LSU Tigers, and the national
profile of the Pelicans, the “sports” the slogan is referring to are not football or basketball, they’re hunting and fishing. Another irony is that we’re so good at hunting here, that at one point that we killed nearly every alligator in the State. Because of that, in 1987, the State of Louisiana embarked on a rescue mission. They came up with a scheme for re-establishing the alligator population through regulating alligator ranching.
Those regulations are still in place today. They stipulate that all alligators in the State have to be raised in approved ranches. When gators reach 4 feet in length, 10% of them have to be released into the wild. As a result of this program, the current State-wide alligator population is estimated to be 3 million.
So, here’s the final irony: the self-proclaimed paradise for hunting, is actually the home of the one of the most successful animal conservation campaigns, anywhere in the world. Ever.
The most unique of the 35 approved alligator ranches in Louisiana, is in Covington. It’s called the Insta-Gator Ranch. Besides raising 2,000 alligators, Insta-Gator Ranch is the only gator ranch in the state that is open to tourists. They get about 25 – 30,000 tourists a year.
John Price started the ranch that grew into Insta Gator with his first alligators, in 1989.
Are you doing the math here? If they release 10% of the alligators on 35 ranches and, they’ve turned into 3 million wild alligators, what happens to the other 90%? Which would be somewhere around 30 million alligators!
Apart from the gators who entertain tourists on John’s ranch, the rest of the millions of them become meat and hides. Some of those hides become belts.
Crescent Belt Manufacturers has been making belts since 1926. Bob Friedrich bought the business in 1995, after he retired from a career in the military where he was a Colonel in the prestigious 101st Airborne Division. Today, Bob ships alligator belts and a wide range of other belts too – including rattlesnake, bison, and ostrich – all across the country, from his factory in Slidell.
The ubiquitous alligator can even be found occasionally on the menu at Commander’s Palace where this show was recorded over lunch.
Photos by Jill Lafleur.
You can hear more conversation about leather over lunch with master Mardi Gras mask maker John Fleming.