All you need to join the hunt is $25 for an application and a passing grade on an online test designed to help you distinguish between newly arrived pythons and native snakes that have lived through the scrub brush and muck for eons. The month-long event is set for Jan. 16.
When the last python challenge was held about three years ago, nearly 1,600 people showed up with everything from clubs to knives to guns. They had the best intentions. Most thought they could rid the Everglades of Florida’s worst swamp thing. But most had no idea about what they were doing. They were terrible at actually tracking, catching and lopping the heads off pythons.
Only 68 snakes were caught, even though the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 5,000 to 100,000 pythons are in the swamp. The lion’s share of the five dozen caught were bagged by fearless trained experts with a keen eye for spotting the snakes and the gumption to snag them by hand.
Media commentators and other naysayers denounced the 2013 hunt as a failure because relatively few snakes were killed. But for the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission, that was so much nonsense.
First, officials there said, the outpouring of news about the hunt delivered their intended message loud and clear: pythons likely released into the wild by pet owners who tired of them are a menace that have turned Everglades wildlife — from opossum to deer to birds, animals that had no idea the invasive snakes were a danger — into snacks.
Researchers who counted Everglades National Park mammals found that 99 percent of racoons had vanished, along with the same amount of opossums and 88 percent of bobcats, according to a 2012 federal study. Marsh rabbits, cottontails and foxes couldn’t be found.
FWCC workers said the nearly 70 snakes removed in the last challenge was significantly more than the number caught over any previous month. The snakes were shot, stunned or beheaded and taken to stations where University of Florida researchers whisked them to a laboratory for a necropsy to study how eggs developed in females and get clues about their movements.
“We gained a lot of valuable information from those snakes,” said Carli Segelson, a spokeswoman for the state wildlife commission.
Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida ecology and biology professor whose students performed the necropsies, said critics should consider what hunters were up against. Hunting was forbidden in Everglades National Park, which comprises 40 percent of the swamp, Mazzotti said, and only 10 percent of the remaining terrain is accessible by foot.
That narrowed 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.
Everglades National Park will likely be closed to amateur hunting when the challenge kicks off next year. Segelson said the state has expanded the area where pythons can be hunted, and is trying to negotiate with the national park to find some common ground that will allow the challenge to expand there. But federal parks officials are wary of what well-intended amateurs could destroy in a park where wildlife is largely pristine.
State officials added a new feature to the challenge this year to remedy that. For the first time, prospective hunters can sign up for on-site training, where a guide will take them into the swamp to help them understand the snake’s habitat and areas where they’re likely to be found.
Pythons are hefty snakes that can grow up to 20 feet and weigh 200 pounds. The largest caught in the swamp so far was recorded at a little over 18 feet. But their size is matched by their stealth. In their habitat, their hide acts like a cloaking device, concealing them in the brush.
In April 2012, I marched into Everglades National Park with Kristen Hart, a U.S. Geological Survey research biologist, who was tracking a 16½-foot Burmese python that had been captured and released months before with a surgically installed radio transmitter, motion detector and global positioning system — and they still had trouble seeing her.
The device was going crazy, and Hart’s head was darting about. “Do you see her?” she asked about five assistants who were with her. Minutes went by before someone responded, “Yeah, she’s in there.” P-51, the 51st python caught in the Everglades, was coiled under scrub brush, perfectly camouflaged. The research biologists pounced on the snake and grabbed it by the throat.
That’s basically one of the best ways to wrestle a python.
In February 2013, I watched the winners of the last challenge, Ruben Ramirez and George Brana, confidently walk through muck and marsh grass that towered over their heads in search of the critters.
When they finally spotted one in a road, they sprinted toward it. The snake made a dash for a roadside bank, so they dove to grab it. Ramirez caught the tail with his bare hand and dragged it back onto the road. With one man holding an 11-foot male by the throat and the other holding it by the tail, with me in the middle holding its musty belly, they started shouting and slapping five.
“You’re looking at the winners right here,” said Ramirez, pointing to his chest. “We’re kicking butt,” said Brana.