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Last Updated: Monday, 15 May 2006, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
The threat from Florida's alligators
Sightings of alligators are common around Florida but attacks on humans are rare. Experts are now asking what provoked two confirmed - and one suspected - fatal attacks in less than a week.

An alligator. File photo
Alligators can be very aggressive when hungry, experts say
Residents of Florida have been warned not to swim in vegetated areas or walk pets near water after the bodies of two women apparently killed by alligators were found on Sunday.

A day earlier, alligator trappers found the killer of Yovy Suarez Jimenez, whose dismembered body had been found earlier in the week.

Florida's residents are used to living cheek-by-jowl with alligators. There are an estimated one million of the creatures in the state.

They are commonly found swimming in canals or sunning themselves on banks. But they do not tend to attack unless provoked.

In recent years, a massive increase in the number of alligators and a boom in the development of waterfront properties has brought Florida residents and alligators into close contact with each other.

Numbers on the rise

In the 1960s, as alligator shoes and handbags fetched high prices, the animals were hunted for their skins. In the 1970s, after their numbers had gone into decline, the federal government put alligators on the endangered species list.

9 May: 29-year-old Yvoy Suarez Jimenez attacked at Sunrise
14 May: 23-year-old Annemarie Campbell attacked at Lake George
14 May: 43-year-old Judy W Cooper's body found near St Petersburg
Officials at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) have in the past decade focused on trying to strike a balance between protecting the reptiles and safeguarding the lives of local people.

Alligators are mostly found in freshwater swamps, marshes, rivers and lakes. But the increase in the development of homes and golf courses on alligators' natural swamps habitat has forced them into the canals used by residents for recreation.

Experts also believe a recent lack of rain is bringing the alligators out of the wild and into ponds and canals along residential areas.

Some areas have been designated as "open harvest", which allows trappers to remove alligators, because they are so close to homes.

The FWC receives more than 15,000 alligator-related complaints a year. The organisation says that some of these involve "conflict" in garages, pools and golf course ponds.

A report in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel says that in 2004, trappers killed 7,352 alligators in response to nuisance complaints.

Feeding banned

The East Canal near Fort Lauderdale, where the attack on 28-year-old Ms Jimenez took place last Wednesday, is thought to have a sizeable alligator population. It had been designated as an "open harvest" area because people live so close to it and use the river for fishing and water skiing.

Alligators favour areas with vegetation so they can hide

What provoked the recent attacks in three separate counties is unknown but state wildlife officials said alligators are generally on the move looking for mates and food at this time of the year.

While alligators are typically more afraid of humans than humans are of them, this fear tends to subside when people feed them, which is illegal.

One possibility is that the alligators had previously been fed by humans and had begun to associate humans with a source of food.

"When there's now construction going on in an area where gators are, the workers feed them and then the workers leave and the gators look at any human as a source of food," Kevin Garvey, who has hunted alligators for Florida for the past 11 years, told the Miami Herald.

Adult males range in length from 13 to 14 feet, while females grow to just under 10 feet.

New US alligator killings feared
15 May 06 |  Americas

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