Hunting pythons is a low-down challenge

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IN THE FLORIDA EVERGLADES

The man known as "Alligator Ron" has a lifetime of experience in the Florida Everglades, a fleet of airboats at his disposal and knows the habitats of furry prey for large reptiles. He still couldn't lead a pack of hunters to a single Burmese python.

That's the catch in Florida's "Python Challenge": Even experienced hunters with special permits to regularly stalk the exotic snake through Florida's swamplands are having trouble finding them for a state-sponsored competition.

"When these snakes are in the water, in the vegetation, they blend in naturally to where you can't hardly see them," said state wildlife commissioner Ron Bergeron, whose nickname is emblazoned on the rudder of his black airboat, over the image of him riding an alligator.

The vast majority of roughly 1,000 people who signed up to hunt Burmese pythons on public lands from Jan. 12 through Feb. 10 are amateurs when it comes to pythons. Only about 30 hold permits for harvesting pythons throughout the year.

The permit holders might have a slight edge when it comes to handling snakes, but the tan, splotchy pythons have natural camouflage that gives them an important advantage in the ecosystem they have invaded.

The population of Burmese pythons, an invasive species in Florida, likely developed from pets released into the wild, either intentionally or in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They can grow to be more than 20 feet long.

As of Thursday, 21 pythons had been killed for the contest, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

It's hard to pin down exactly how many Burmese pythons slither through Florida's Everglades, but officials say their effect is glaringly obvious. According to a study released last year, sightings of raccoons, opossums, bobcats, rabbits and other mammals in the Everglades are down as much as 99 percent in areas where pythons are known to live.

It's believed that the pythons are devouring the native wildlife, and officials worry the snakes' voracious appetite will undermine the ongoing, multimillion-dollar effort to restore natural water flow through the Everglades.

Officials say the number of pythons caught during the contest isn't as important as the data they provide.

"I'm going to be ecstatic if we see 100," said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida professor of wildlife ecology who is helping the commission with the contest. The state hopes to use the information from python necropsies -- particularly what's in their stomachs -- to improve their attempts at dealing with the snakes.

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