On 15 June 2016, a two-year-old boy was dragged into the water by an American alligator in Orlando, Florida. About 18 hours later, the boy's "intact" body was discovered in the water near where he was taken.

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said in a press conference that no similar incidents had occurred in the area.

The tragedy is leading people to ask how dangerous American alligators are, and whether it is safe to visit the areas where they live. We contacted alligator experts to help assess the risk.

There are only two species of alligator: the small Chinese alligator, which grows no longer than 5ft (1.5m), and the American alligator, which can be considerably larger.

It is reasonable to assume that any body of water in Florida could have an alligator in it

We do not know the size of the alligator that attacked the boy in Florida: witnesses have put it at 4-7ft (1.2-2m) long. If that is correct it was relatively small. The largest American alligator on record was discovered in Alabama in 2014. It was almost 15ft (4.5m) long.

American alligators are extremely abundant in Florida. Following a successful conservation programme, there are over one million and they occupy all 67 counties. They are also found in several other states, including Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina.

Ecologist Lucas Nell of the University of Georgia in Athens, US has tagged many alligators in Florida during his research. He says it is reasonable to assume that any body of water in Florida could have an alligator in it. They are found in most marshes, rivers and swamps.

But despite their abundance, attacks are rare.

Typically, alligators are afraid of humans, says Nell. "They have been hunted since the Europeans got to the US, and they almost went extinct."

A 2010 report tallied all the reported alligator attacks over the 81 years from 1928 to 2009. It found there were only 24 deaths from alligators in the United States, most of them in Florida.

It turns out there are about 0.06 attacks per year per 100,000 people

Of the deaths reported, there were only a handful where the victim was "being fed upon".

In those cases, "it is not known whether the victim was attacked first, or [they] may have drowned and then [been] eaten," says report author Rick Langley of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services in Raleigh.

Over the same period, Langley reports that there were 567 "adverse encounters", many of which were bites. About 260 required medical care beyond simple first aid. The rest were minor.

When you factor in how many people live in alligator country, it turns out there are about 0.06 attacks per year per 100,000 people. That is a remarkably low number.

Of the 23 crocodilian species, eight are known to launch unprovoked attacks on humans, according to the Specialist Crocodile Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). American alligators are one of these aggressive species.

Alligators are often less dangerous than crocodiles because they are more choosy about their prey

However, the IUCN also says that only 6% of American alligator attacks are fatal. That is a low risk of death, particularly when compared to 63% for the ferocious Nile crocodile and 25-50% for the saltwater crocodile.

There is a database called CrocBITE that aims to record all crocodile attacks around the world. It estimates that about 1,000 people die every year as a result of crocodile attacks. Several hundred of those deaths – a clear majority – happen in Africa.

Read more: When crocodiles attack

Alligators are often less dangerous than crocodiles because they are more choosy about their prey.

Crocodiles will eat anything that moves, including large mammals, says Simon Pooley of Birkbeck College, University of London, who works with the IUCN's Crocodile Specialist Group.

Humans are encroaching on alligator habitat, so the two species are more likely to cross paths

In contrast, alligator attacks are rare because they target prey animals that are smaller than adult humans. Their normal prey includes fish, birds, other reptiles and small mammals.

Unfortunately, children are about the same size as these animals, so they can become targets.

Nevertheless, attacks on children remain fairly rare. According to the 2010 report, only 13.1% of alligator attacks targeted children.

Despite the low risk, Langley says that alligator attacks are likely to become more common, because "both the human population and alligator population are increasing". In many coastal regions, humans are encroaching on alligator habitat, so the two species are more likely to cross paths.

As things stand, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission receives about 16,000 complaints about alligators every year.

Coexisting with large dangerous predators requires us to understand their behaviour

They run a "Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program", and can remove "nuisance alligators" larger than 4ft (1.2m) if the animals are "believed to pose a threat to people, pets or property". Smaller alligators only feed on small prey, so are not considered a threat "unless handled".

In 2015, the team removed 7,513 alligators. A 2014 report stated that 66% of nuisance alligators "were removed by lethal means". Smaller ones were generally relocated.

Pooley and Nell both say that attacks are easily preventable. But that means being aware of the risks, and following the simple rules outlined by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

If these common-sense rules are followed, Nell says, people should be able to live alongside the alligators.

It's the peak season for alligators being active and moving around

"Coexisting with large dangerous predators requires us to understand their behaviour and behave responsibly around them," says Pooley.

The key thing is to ensure that everyone, especially visitors and tourists, know the rules. That means better education and outreach.

"I think people aren't quite aware how widespread they are, particularly now," says Pooley. "It's the peak season for alligators being active and moving around."

Melissa Hogenboom is BBC Earth's feature writer. She is @melissasuzanneh on Twitter.

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