COVINGTON, La. — Insta-Gator Ranch & Hatchery in Covington is home to more than 2,000 alligators and more than 25,000 people tour the ranch each year. But it's not just about seeing the gators up close and personal or buying an alligator wallet.
The 35 alligator ranches in Louisiana serve a much bigger purpose with their plan to protect the American alligator.
"It's about increasing the wild population and maintaining and controlling that population," Insta-Gator owner John Price explained.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries recognized that the alligator population was declining rapidly. So in the 1980s, they came up with a plan.
"They discovered that the alligator was not surviving in the wild as a baby, so they concluded, 'let's go out in the wild and harvest the eggs. In fact, let's go harvest all the eggs,'" Price said.
Price says that the state's ranchers harvest up to 700,000 eggs a year. They then take those eggs, incubate them, hatch the alligators and raise them to be an average of 4 feet. They then return 10% of those alligators back to the wild.
That 10%, or about 70,000 alligators a year, is increasing the wild population dramatically. There's been over a million alligators released from ranches to the marshes since 1987, Price says.
That 10% might not seem like a lot, but its more than would have survived without human intervention.
"The fastest growing population of any species on earth that man has attempted to increase in numbers," Price said.
So what happens to the other 90%? The ranchers harvest the alligators for their meat and leather, but it costs them. They must buy tags from the Wildlife and Fisheries at about $4 each. The state agency then uses that profit to fund the protection program.
At Insta-Gator Ranch & Hatchery, people of all ages learn more about that ranching program, as well as the history of the alligator.
The coolest thing you can do at the ranch is to have an alligator hatch in your hands. The ranchers go into the wild and harvest eggs in late June or July and the eggs hatch every year in August.
"They tell us when they're ready to hatch," Price said. "The babies make a sound inside the egg, telling us they're ready to get out. We have customers choosing their day of choice. They come here, we put an egg in their hand and it hatches in their hand."
WWL-TV reporter Leslie Spoon can be reached at email@example.com;