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On the Hunt for Burmese Pythons in the Everglades

As nonnative snakes decimate native species, hunters find a role in conservation efforts

“The word ‘Everglade’ means river of grass,” explains our airboat driver, who goes by Alligator Rob. We are out under the hot sun in the middle of the Florida Everglades, or “glades,” and Rob is addressing some engine trouble that has us stalled. He chats while he tinkers. “Not only is it a river, but it is the slowest moving river in the world. It only travels one mile a day. [It’s] 120 miles long, 50 miles wide. This is everybody’s fresh water supply from Pompano Beach all the way to the Keys.” Airboat rides in the Florida Everglades are a classic draw for tourists, skimming over the water and grass, with cameras pointed at the apex predator — the alligator. But there’s another predator now taking over the spotlight — the unwelcome, nonnative Burmese python.

photo of Burmese PythonPhoto by South Florida Water Management District Southern Florida is struggling to reduce python populations. The nonnative snakes are competing with native predators for food.

Since the python population exploded in the late 1990s — by some estimates, there are now as many as 150,000 snakes in the Everglades — these huge reptiles have decimated native wildlife, including, raccoons, marsh rabbits, and birds. According to one study, mammal counts during nighttime road surveys in Everglades National Park decreased substantially for several species between 2003 and 2011, including by 99 percent for raccoons, 99 percent for opossum and 88 percent for bobcat. As populations of these smaller mammals dwindle, the effects can be felt up the food chain, as native predators like panthers and alligators lose their primary food sources. The python issue is yet one more challenge facing the Everglades ecosystem, which once sprawled across more than 6,250 square miles, but has now shrunk by half, and which has been dissected by dikes, roads and canals that have diverted the natural flow fo fresh water.

Desperate measures are required to protect native wildlife, so the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) has picked a select group of 25 hunters out of some 1,000 applicants to participate in a pilot python-hunting program this year on SFWMD lands. Other hunts are also taking place throughout the year in parts of Everglades National Park, sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

The troublesome snakes seem to have originated from two sources: jaded pet owners dumping their charges, and the destruction of an Everglades breeding facility during Hurricane Andrew.

“There is a common story about the python, in that Hurricane Andrew hitting in 1992 released all these snakes into the Everglades. I imagine some snakes made it into the Everglades, but the real issue is the pet trade,” explains Charles Kropke, expeditionary tour operator, filmmaker, and conservationist.

Pythons have become popular pets in Florida and elsewhere. When the snakes are small, they only require a mouse or two a week. After several months, the hungry, growing python is bigger and craves a rabbit, then two rabbits a week, and these meals are not cheap. “The pet owner has to dig deep into his pocket and he says, ‘Well, the novelty has worn off.’ He wants to release the snake. He doesn’t want to kill it, he is affectionate to the snake. But there's no other way for him to get rid of it [so] he sets off to the Everglades and he releases,” Kropke says.

The Everglades couldn’t be more perfect of place for these beautiful beasts. A subtropical environment is just right for the Burmese python and it has plenty of yummy food sources to choose from. The climate conditions and abundance of prey in the Everglades have also allowed Burmese pythons to breed rapidly. One female Burmese python can lay up to 100 eggs.

The current South Florida Water Management District hunting pilot program runs through June 1. Hunters are provided a financial incentive to catch the snakes, which are difficult to spot given their camouflage. The bounty is $50 for a snake that's at least four feet, and $25 per foot for every additional foot of length. In addition to the incentives, the water district program will pay each hunter the state's minimum wage of $8.10 an hour.

Thomas Rahill is a python hunter and founder of the Swamp Apes, a group mostly made up of military veterans dedicated to combatting invasive animals and plants in the Everglades. He is one of the 25 people chosen for this year’s hunt. His old black Chevy just reached 300,000 miles and it is covered in Everglades dust — most of those miles were done in the river of grass. Using a spotlight mounted on his car, he looks for Burmese pythons on the levees in the dark of night.

“Right now we are road cruising. Python-ing is nothing like you’d expect it to be, yet it is everything you’d hope for,” Rahill says with great enthusiasm. “To drive on a road at night [with a] bright spotlight — you are looking for a large dark shadow going across the road. And then you get out and, hopefully, successfully capture the python. When you come across a big python, I don’t care where you are, it is a very dangerous animal, you have to know what you are doing. Really exciting stuff and very rewarding to get a python out of the Everglades.”

For hours upon hours, we drive along long straight levees, some going for 20 miles, looking for something slithering past, something wound up on a tree branch, or the stark shadow in the headlights of a python warming itself on the roadway after dusk. One can spend a whole week of 12-hour days looking for pythons and not find one, as happened the day I was out with Rahill this month.

In addition to the environmental and financial incentives that make the effort worthwhile for many of the hunters, there is an addictive quality to being out in the Everglades. It’s an epic place to travel, a place with an ecosystem like no other on Earth because it derives its water from rainfall. To Thomas, it is a place he feels most connected to.

The stars sparkle in the black, clear sky as Rahill describes the scene: “I don’t know if you can feel it but the air is just not heavy…. The wind goes down and there is a settling [that] takes place and a window when the critters move.”

The reptiles cannot be captured and removed from the Everglades alive without proper permits, which are difficult to obtain. Those participating in the pilot project must kill the snakes using firearms or decapitation. In this lies the big concern for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which is particularly concerned about decapitation, a method the organization has urged state agencies to outlaw.

“We believe very strongly that if the snakes must be removed, it must be done humanely,” says Lori Kettler, Deputy General Counsel for PETA. She feels decapitation should be removed from the permitted means of killing the Burmese python, unless the person is properly trained. “Reptiles have a very slow metabolism. So a snake that is decapitated continues to experience pain up to an hour after decapitation,” says Kettler. The method of killing needs to be swift, Kettler adds.

Christopher Smith and Andrea Zimandy, Swamp Ape board members and animal veterinarians at the Welleby Veterinary Hospital in Sunrise, Florida, are training future Swamp Apes on how to restrain and humanely kill the massive constrictors, especially larger snakes, which can grow to more then 20 feet. “You generally want to control the most powerful part of the animal, which, in their case, is their mouth. So if you are able to grab behind their skull and restrain that way, then you are better able to control their bodies.”

Smith and Zimandy hold a five-foot male python on an examination table to check its health and give it some antibiotics: They are also assisting state agencies with implanting tracking devices to help study python behavior and to learn when and where the Burmese pythons travel in the Everglades. Given the little that is known about the Burmese python, especially how it functions in the Everglades, there is a long way to go before anyone can fully understand how to deal with them.

“In my opinion, I think the python problem is very bad. We don’t know the scope of how bad it is because we still don’t know everything about these animals,” says Smith. “The relationships that happen in any ecosystem are very complex. And when you throw something in that ecosystem that is not supposed to be there, you can see some very obvious abnormalities. The mammal population is starting to drop. The biodiversity starts to plummet. How do those ripple effects start to go outwards, I don’t even know if we have a grasp of that yet.”

Until something better comes along, human hunters may be the best method we have of finding and capturing the giant constrictors. As of May 17, hunters participating in the pilot program had killed 102 snakes, the longest at 17 feet. But the battle is going to be a long one: The Everglades are still teeming with tens of thousands of pythons. With the dedication I saw in the South Florida community to deal with them, it seems they may yet succeed.

Maria Bakkalapulo
Maria Bakkalapulo is a journalist and filmmaker based in Miami, Florida. You can see more of her work at www.mariabakkalapulo.com

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