Alligator fashion

I found this article about the economics of alligator skin fashion accessories quite interesting:

The alligator industry makes for an odd mix of hardy men on the
bayou who smoke Camels and drive crumbling pickup trucks, and Paris and
New York fashion setters who consider it reasonable to spend $12,000 on
an alligator-strap watch.

This peculiar relationship worked
well enough for decades, but it has soured as of late. Last year
Louisiana farmers, who produce most of the world’s alligator skins,
collected over 500,000 eggs from the wild. This year, for the first
time, most farmers did not pick up any.

The economy is the lead
culprit. Since the fall of 2008, even wealthy customers have begun
balking at the price of alligator skin products, which can range from
the expensive to the wildly expensive. Bumper crops in previous years,
people in the industry say, left an oversupply just as the luxury
market began to falter.

Apparently, its more than that, though.  It seems that Hermès is cornering the market on alligator skins and using its monopoly power to distort the market.  Honestly, though, I found the part of the article about the rigors of alligator farming to be the most interesting. 

Alligator farming is hard, messy, costly work, and the lifestyle
could not be further from that of the eventual Bergdorf Goodman shopper
browsing for a pair of alligator skin loafers. Farmers, often in
father-son teams, mark alligator nesting sites from helicopters, then
go into the swamps by boat to gather the eggs, fending off mama gators
with a pole. (By law, 12 percent of the grown alligators are returned
to the wild.)

The landowners are paid for the eggs, and it is
expensive to raise an alligator once hatched. The big ones — those that
could end up as lavender handbags — tend to bite one another, making
the skins worthless. So roughly 9 of 10 alligators reach their demise
when they are only about four feet long.

Stolid men wade into
shallow tanks and pull the alligators out by hand. Biting happens.
After the gators are killed with a stab to the brain, they are skinned
and sorted: heads and claws for the French Quarter souvenir shops, meat
for the Cajun restaurants, guts for turtles, dogs or anything else
whose tastes run that way.

This article also reminded me of a book I read several years ago, Monster of God by David Quammen.  It focused on four man-eating animals: yes, lions, tigers, and bears, in fact.  And also, crocodiles, which kill quite a few people in Australia.  Apparently, the main way to protect this threatened species is a strong market in crocodile skins.  The article and the book are both worth reading.  The article is much shorter. 



About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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