BIG Al is guaranteed to be the star attraction at Leather '93. After all, alligators 15 feet long are rare in Hongkong, even when stuffed. On loan to the Southern United States Trade Association exhibition stand from his owner, restaurateur Mr Bob Guilbeau, Big Al is intended to put some teeth into SUSTA's education campaign about the US alligator hide industry. While Big Al's role is to grab visitors' attention, and Mr Guilbeau's is to serve up alligator tail meat snacks, SUSTA's objective is the launch of a major promotion stressing the status and quality of the authentic American product. Competition from caiman (Central and South American alligator) skins, high stock levels and consumer confusion over the legal status of alligator skins have cut prices paid to farmers and trappers in the US, hence the promotion. SUSTA's story of the fearsome alligator notes that it is the only creature unchanged from the days of the dinosaur, 65 million years ago. Ancient American Indians respected the alligator, but learned to hunt it, with rope and knife, for its near-indestructible skin and tasty meat. They knew precisely how big a beast to tackle - never larger than a lone hunter could carry. That meant between four and six feet long: in other words, a juvenile. Anything larger, such as the 24-foot full-grown males that can live for eight decades or more, they prudently left in peace. Though based on pragmatism, this policy was ecologically sound. The breeding cycles of the big adults could sustain the species, while young alligators were taken only as and when needed. The coming of the white man's gun changed all that. Inside 150 years, the quest for the dollar, coupled with an easier, safer hunting method, reduced the 'gator population right across the southern states of Texas, Louisiana, Florida and up into the Carolinas. The federal government placed a nationwide ban on killing alligators and, coupled with extensive research by marine and estuarine biologists, the alligator was saved. Today, it is as numerous as it was 200 years ago - and the basis of a thriving industry. More than 200 farmers are now raising 'gators in controlled conditions that can produce a four-to six-footer in three years. Louisiana is home to 85 per cent of the world's alligator population and heartland of the industry with US$25 million of alligator-related products in 1991. Some 25,000 skins were taken from the wild and a further 200,000 came from the state's 120 'gatorfarmers. All alligator harvesting, ranching and farming operations in the southeastern United States are strictly regulated by state, federal and international laws. The US is one of more than 100 countries that abide by the CITES treaty (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora) which approves and documents the foreign export of hides. All farmers and trappers must be licensed and all skins marked with serially numbered tags. In one state, as part of the sustained resource effort, all farmers are required by law to return to the wild 17 per cent of those that reach the four-foot mark. The American alligator produces a skin that lacks large numbers of osteoderms, or ''buttons'', in the belly and neck regions. The absence of buttons is the hallmark of high quality 'gator skins, since they resist the effect of dyes during the tanning stages and result in uneven colouring. Tremendous care is taken to ensure that only the best quality skins are sold on to the manufacturers of alligator products. The farmer will meticulously scrape and salt each skin, before the measuring and grading is carried out. Then the tanners soak, dye, oil and glaze the finished skins to maximise the workable area. Trained artisans consider the pattern of the skin and the appropriate tile, or scale, size in relation to the intended product before carefully cutting the patterns. The natural gloss of 'gator skin is also enhanced by the bombe (pronounced bom-bay) finish applied by the finest tanneries. To achieve this relief effect, heat is applied to the polished skin which raises the previously flat centre of each scale. The result is a deep and reflective colour that further emphasises the distinctive markings that are special to each skin. Traditionally, 'gator skin products were predominantly Western handbags, briefcases, wallets, boots and belts. Increasingly, however, innovative designers are using alligator leather to complement other types of leather, and inlaid jewellery. But don't tell Big Al . . .