MIAMI — As they bounced into the Everglades in a beat-up truck, Ruben Ramirez and George Brana overflowed with confidence.
In the Everglades, hunters help to check a slithery invader
“You’re looking at the winners right here,” said Ramirez, 40, pointing to his chest. “We’re kicking butt,” said Brana, 44.
More than 1,500 people signed up for the state-sponsored event, the first ever to allow anyone in the nation to hunt, regardless of whether the hunter was licensed. And Brana and Ramirez were out to bag at least one more python, for a little insurance.
They sounded more cocky than worried. Most of their competitors were a bunch of novices — “yahoos,” they called them — who waded into the swamp at the start of the event and quickly got out after experiencing the backbreaking work of hunting pythons for hours a day under a hot sun in the Florida muck.
When state wildlife officials hand out the prizes Saturday morning for the biggest and most pythons caught, Brana and Ramirez boasted, the smart money is on them, two Cuban Americans who have caught pythons and other snakes by hand since they were kids.
Whether the state was a big winner is hard to say. Estimates put the Everglades’s python population at 100,000 at the most, so 50 dead snakes seems like a paltry harvest.
But supporters said that is a lot of hungry mouths removed from the swamp, where mammals have disappeared by the hundreds since the python became established.
Researchers who counted Everglades National Park mammals found that 99 percent of raccoons had vanished, along with the same amount of opossums and 88 percent of bobcats, according to a study released last year. Marsh rabbits, cottontails and foxes couldn’t be found.
The data are not in from necropsies of the snakes performed at a University of Florida lab in Fort Lauderdale, so no one knows how many big females, carrying an average of 50 eggs, were removed, or how many males that compete to mate with the females, or how many babies waiting to contribute to another generation.
Besides, critics should consider that hunting was forbidden in Everglades National Park, which comprises 40 percent of the swamp, said Frank J. Mazzotti, a University of Florida ecology and biology professor whose students performed the necropsies.
Only 10 percent of the remaining terrain is accessible by foot, narrowing the estimate of available snakes to 600. So harvesting more than 50 monster serpents exquisitely camouflaged in the swamp is “an incredible success,” Mazzotti said.
In any case, state wildlife officials said, the goal of the hunt wasn’t just bagging snakes, but also drawing attention to the havoc that pythons and other invasive species — such as two large and greedy lizards, the black and white Argentine tegu and Nile monitor, as well as the Cuban tree frog — wreak upon native wildlife in the Sunshine State.
“The victory is in making people aware about invasive species,” Mazzotti said. “There are almost 140 species of introduced reptiles in Florida right now, any one of them waiting to be the next python.