NEW ORLEANS -- It's a marvelously ugly beast, with spiked and ridged armor, a sharply hooked beak, a fishing lure in its mouth and a nasty bite.
But the alligator snapping turtle's hard shell holds tasty flesh. Many experts worry that turtle soup will wipe out North America's biggest freshwater turtle unless Louisiana -- the animal's main turf -- protects it.
That doesn't appear likely any time soon.
It's a common belief that restaurants use farm-raised alligator snappers, also known as loggerheads and, in Louisiana, cowans. Turtle farmers say that just doesn't happen.
"A person couldn't raise alligator snappers for meat and make any money. They grow too slow," said James Randleas of Randleas Turtle Farm in Jacksonville, Ark. The turtle can grow to 200 pounds and live for more than 70 years.
Randleas said his father used to sell wild-caught snappers for meat. Now he raises loggerheads and sells hatchlings overseas or for scientific or educational use. He lists them at $30 to $50 for single turtles, depending on size, wholesale prices negotiated. With six ponds filled with turtles, he figures he sold 10,000 last year.
Randleas' sales figure sounds incredible for a beast which several international groups say is in trouble and which an American Zoo Association committee says is one of three turtles most in need of help.
Other turtle perils
In addition to chefs and other predators, loggerheads' perils include pollution, dredging, dams and development. Mercury and dioxin pollute most Louisiana waterways. Dredging kills turtles where they live, at the bottoms of ponds and slow streams. Dams keep them from swimming upriver. Farmland and development have sliced away habitat.
But Louisiana wildlife officials say their studies show the reptile does not need any protecting. And while the 12 other states in the turtle's range all have laws to protect it, it is not on the federal threatened or endangered species list.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering adding alligator snappers to the international list of species which may not be exported.
Yet in Louisiana, state wildlife officials say cowans are doing fine on their own.
Jeff Boundy of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, who ran a program to learn how many are in Louisiana, said they don't need protection and he won't recommend it.
Over five years, Boundy said, trappers caught, weighed, measured and tagged about 500 alligator snappers around the state. He said the trappers found about the same numbers in wildlife reserves as in areas where turtles were caught for market.
John Richards, who created the Alligator Snapper Foundation to raise loggerheads in Strafford, Mo., rejects Boundy's optimism.
"There's no doubt that four-fifths of your turtles -- your alligator snappers -- are gone," he says. "This animal has a lot of factors working against it that weren't working against it 30 or 40 years ago."
Mike Harrell, who has caught about 200 in North Louisiana over the past two years, agrees with Boundy that Louisiana holds far more alligator snapping turtles than most researchers think. But they still need help, he says.
In the meantime, he's feeding the turtles about 700 pounds of fish a week -- fish that fishermen would otherwise throw back -- and whatever water plants he sees choking local waterways.