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Swamp People: The Original Environmentalists

The History Channel's "Swamp People" isn't just about alligator-hunting--it profiles a conservationist subculture.

Every episode of the History Channel’s “Swamp People” begins with the following disclaimer: “The way of life depicted in this program dates back 300 years. Hunting, especially alligator hunting, lies at its core. Some images may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.” While this warning may titillate 5.2 million Americans enough to tune in, it masks the less sensational heart of the show: the relationship between the ecosystem of the Southeast Louisiana wetlands and its residents. Louisiana swamps may look like something out of a J.R.R. Tolkien novel and the characters populating it may seem equally otherworldly to viewers watching from the comfort of an air-conditioned living room. But behind the staged, almost-eaten incidents and the Cajun tagline “choot ‘em, choot ‘em,” “Swamp People” offers a message of conservation and respect. Swamp people are environmentalists without petitions or boycotts.

In fact, alligator-hunting is only a small part of “the swamp life.” Heavily regulated by the state in order to both control and maintain populations, alligator-hunting is a privilege. A certain number of tags, determined by local scientists based on population counts, are allotted each year and must be purchased. Hunters who don’t fill all their tags in a season must forfeit them the next year. Catching big alligators is the goal. Paid by the foot, hunters don’t waste time with smaller younger alligators and thus the population is allowed to mature and regenerate, which maintains a healthy functioning ecosystem and allows hunters to continue the tradition. The season is short, opening in August or September and lasting thirty days, and in that time, some swampers make half their annual income.

Their passion for protecting their source of income translates into protecting the wetland ecosystems the alligators live in. They note dropping water levels, which has an effect on alligator egg distribution as well as their ability to access certain channels in the swamp. They bemoan warmer weather, which causes alligators to burrow into the mud, making them difficult to catch. They complain about Asian Carp, which besides sometimes flying into the boat and hitting them in the face is also an invasive species competing with the native fish.

The History Channel, by portraying these incidents as hilarious hijinks that prevent the hunters from filling their quota, ends up diminishing their importance. To survive off the swamp is a precarious lifestyle. Besides the dangers of poisonous snakes and getting stranded or lost in a maze of canals, the swampers’ livelihood and existence is largely at the whim of the environment. So while an exposed berm due to water levels dropping may provide for some convenient action shots of trying to jump it with a small aluminum boat, what it really shows is the affects of drought for these local residents.

Besides the physical issues affecting the environment, these hunters make a point of differentiating themselves from poachers. Poachers are known for their disrespectful and unsustainable alligator-hunting practices. Often without proper tags, poachers trespass on ambiguous swamp properties and leave fishing line lying around, which can strangle birds. They use AK-47s instead of 22-gauge shot guns, and instead of harvesting the whole alligator for its hide and meat, they simply cut off the tail, leaving the rest to rot. For the hunters on “Swamp People,” poachers are both a threat to their earnings as well as an affront to the Cajun swamper tradition of living off the land sustainably.

It was a somber moment when the patriarch of the show, Troy Landry, killed an alligator that was becoming a threat to a local hunting camp in his area. Landry estimated it was 100 years old. But Landry didn’t feel remorseful—he felt proud that he had protected his community and in essence kept the human-alligator relationship intact; Landry understands that the human encroachment into the bayou and the alligators’ habitat cannot be reversed and that both populations need to be kept safe. It may not have been the most feel-good moment, but it provided a glimpse into a type of environmental awareness we don’t often hear about from Greenpeace or

“Swamp People,” like all reality shows, give us an opportunity to be voyeurs. But instead of getting to know who Snooki is sleeping with, we learn about an otherwise inaccessible ecosystem, one that is integral to the health of our coastlines. Swamp people are not grassroots activists, nor users-and-abusers of the land. But they can be considered environmentalists in the purest form. They directly experience their local ecosystems and the changes they go through, a subculture for which the History Channel has unwittingly provided an invaluable vehicle.

Image via YouTube.

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