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When the hunters shine a spotlight across the west-central Florida lake, the eyes of a thousand alligators appear red, gleaming above the surface of the black water.

There are 2,000 of the red dots, the eyes of 1,000 alligators, but by morning, there will be substantially fewer eyes, their owners becoming statistics in this year's Florida gator harvest.Hunting alligators is unlike most other types of hunting, in which human predators seek out gentle prey like graceful deer and flying birds. As proud gator baggers boast, their quarry is a powerful, ancient reptile fully capable of severely injuring or even killing the humans that track it down.

Thursday was the first official night of gator season in this state, and 12 hunters were officially licensed to kill the reptiles on 5,000-acre Lake Hancock, which is just outside the central Florida town of Lakeland.

Each hunter spent $250 for an alligator license. And each of his or her three hunter's assistants, known as "agents," spent $50 to come along.

Florida allows only about 200 alligator hunting licenses each year, holding a drawing to select the few hunters out of thousands of applicants. This year, each crew is allowed to take six alligators.

Once a threatened species, alligators have staged a remarkable comeback in recent years, and Florida has had to allow annual controlled hunts to thin the animals' population.

Lt. Rip Stalvey and wildlife biologist Steve Martin, both of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, were out on Lake Hancock in one of the commission's airboats to monitor the first night's activities.

As the airboat skimmed across the rain-streaked waters of the lake, Stalvey beamed a brilliant spotlight toward the opposite shore. Dozens of ruby red eyes shown back.

"You can estimate a gator's size by the distance from his snout to his eyes. Whatever that is in inches is what the gator will be in feet," said Martin.