The American alligator once neared extinction. By the 1950s, demand for hides and uncontrolled hunting in the southeastern United States had almost wiped out the species after a 200 million-year run on planet Earth.
Three decades later, alligator populations were fully recovered, “making it one of the first endangered species success stories,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The reemergence of the alligator came at the same time the human population also grew, both in size and sprawl, creating a dynamic with an unavoidable outcome: human and predator interaction.
Alligator run-ins can be dangerous and sometimes have tragic outcomes. Incidents such as the one involving the 2-year-old boy killed this week by an alligator in Florida Disney Resort’s man-made lake garner massive attention and stir alarm over animal-human conflict.
But Alligator attacks on humans are still incredibly rare, and official statistics don’t show there’s any spike. Since 1948 through 2015, there have been 383 attacks in Florida, 23 of which were fatal, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Wildlife experts caution that the best approach in the face of such a tragedy is to educate the public on the dangers lurking in Florida’s waters and how to avoid coming into contact with alligators.
But why are we running into them in the first place? Human-alligator conflict is “an inevitable consequence of a successful conservation story of a large predator,” said Frank Mazzotti, a professor at University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, also known as UF-IFAS.
That’s true not just for alligators but also for bears, big cats, “anywhere there has been a successful recovery program,” Mazzotti said. “Because during the same time, the human population has also increased and is now living more frequently where that large predator was living.”
There is some debate as to how close the alligator came to extinction, given how quickly the population has ballooned in just two decades. Population estimates were based on hides, but it’s generally accepted that widespread, unregulated hunting and the demand for hides greatly depleted alligator populations in the Southeast during the first half of the 20th century. In 1967, the species received federal protection as an endangered species that couldn’t be legally hunted. By 1987, the government removed the animal from the endangered species list.
We also now have more people around. Florida is home to more than 20 million people and 1.3 million alligators. Humans have built houses, golf courses and resorts in places that are on the edge of or were once themselves natural alligator habitats, lands where the “water used to sit,” Mazzotti said. These areas now have storm water ponds to collect all that water — ponds that are perfect for hosting alligators.
“That’s what creates the interface between humans and alligators, the storm water ponds,” Mazzotti said.
The wet and swampy Florida of the past has been manipulated by people who have created ponds, lakes and canals, either to control water flow or for aesthetic purposes, said James Perran Ross, associate scientist at UF-IFAS. These bodies of water, even the small ones, “quickly attract” alligators.
“If there’s a body of water in Florida of almost any size, there could be an alligator in it, whether artificial or natural, big or small,” Ross said.
Alligators prefer fresh water, and are sometimes found in brackish waters, too. These animals would still live in Florida even if people weren’t around and didn’t build ponds and canals. But people are in Florida, so people will run into alligators.
Some areas in the Southeast have become hosts to alligators. Kiawah Island in South Carolina, for example, used to be a much more “salty environment” before humans developed homes and golf courses there, Mazzotti said.
Environmental changes, like drought, can lead to more alligator-human interactions, he added.
While alligators tend to flee humans, animals that become accustomed to human presence could become confident and bold, Ross said.
Many states have “alligator nuisance” programs to help manage the population. In South Carolina, home to an estimated 100,000 alligators, relocating such nuisance alligators has become a challenge as there just isn’t that much human-free space available.
Florida ran out of space long ago, said Ross. The state had 13,599 nuisance alligator complaints in 2014, and 6,706 of those alligators were “harvested,” meaning caught and killed by trappers, in response.
Managed hunting programs are seen as one way to control alligator populations. “We are shifting from conservation that’s totally preoccupied with animals recovered and about getting their numbers back up, to conservation that manages those numbers,” Ross said.
Managing a species can also mean trying to get humans to modify their behavior, such as encouraging people to secure trash in order to avoid bear run-ins, or warning against feeding alligators, he added.
As far as a solution goes, Mazzotti emphasizes getting “alligator-wise” and learning to stay away from bodies of water, particularly at night and during breeding season. “You learn the things that protect you and minimize your risk from the animals.”
Despite so much attention to the danger of alligators, the likelihood of being killed by one is statistically low. Humans are more likely to be killed by cows or dogs than by an alligator. But there’s an especially terrifying characteristic about the animals and the injury they can inflict, that can lead to outsized attention.
“There is something deep in our old brain. We have a real fear of predators,” Ross said. “We spent 50,000 years living in caves, with saber-tooth tigers and big bears [attacking], and I think that fear is still there.”
We have an “archetypal fear of alligators or large predators. It’s why people fear sharks. In almost every instance, it’s out of proportion to the real danger,” said Mazzotti. “There’s some kind of a human reaction here that goes beyond what the numbers show.”
Mazzotti added that in order to educate the public about wildlife, “we really have to understand the origins of people’s reactions.”
Part of that fear as to do may have to do with the uncontrollable nature of wildlife. Humans have long desired and worked to bring mother nature under their rule, and we’ve become disconnected from the reality of how unruly it can be. That’s the same kind of thinking that leads to people taking selfies with wild bison in Yellowstone, or as Ross noted, selfies with alligators in Florida state parks.
“I believe what’s changed is that we have succeeded with conservation,” Ross said. “The opportunity for interaction with wildlife, which was absent for decades, has reemerged.”