On Thursday, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) joined more than 800 people, who had signed up for hunting permits, all with the hope of bagging a record number of invasive Burmese pythons for a $1,500 prize for most catches and $1,000 for longest snake.
According to the Associated Press, Nelson will participate briefly in the monthlong hunt, which was started Saturday by the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and has been an annual event in the war on the ever-increasing population of the non-native reptile.
Senator Nelson sponsored legislation last year that makes it illegal for importation and interstate sale of the prolific pythons. He joined FWCC's Ron Bergerson on Thursday for an evening effort to bag a Burmese. Studies by the National Park Service show that 1,800 have been removed from Everglades National Park since 2002, but it is feared to have only made a dent in the existing population,which has been estimated to be between 5,000 to 140,000 snakes.
The problem, according to wildlife officials, began around 1979 and was thought to have evolved as the result of python pet owners releasing their snakes into the wild as they got too big to handle or too expensive to feed. The population issue was compounded in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew destroyed several python breeding facilities in the area, which allowed countless pythons of varying age and size to escape into the wild.
Adding to the perfect storm of python proliferation has been the snake’s ability to breed often, with hatchlings in numbers ranging from 40 to 100. FFWS began opening hunts and selling permits to kill the snakes as the population continued to inflate, with lethal consequences to people and wildlife becoming more prevalent.
Pythons eat prey, which includes anything they can grasp in their jaws, which has decimated wildlife in Everglade terrain, including mammals and birds. Rabbits, possums, coyotes and raccoons are rarely seen in areas known to be populated by the Burmese. The snakes can grow longer than 20 feet and weigh over 200 pounds and live for 20 years. Bigger snakes have been known to eat bigger prey, like goats, pigs and deer.
However, pythons have few natural predators other than hunters. Alligators big enough to get the best of the slithery reptiles, before they become victims themselves, have also been known to win a wrestling match or two.
In addition to the danger pythons pose to wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States reported in 2009 that pet pythons have been responsible for the deaths of 12 people since 1980, including five children.
Pythons are actually quite docile creatures, but they can’t differentiate between a large rabbit and a small child. They are skilled, silent hunters, who track their food mostly by smell and kill their prey with a combination of body-strangulation and biting.
As reported by CNN, the great python hunt of 2013 did not start off well, with only 11 snakes caught by Monday night. The difficulty, hunters say, is finding them, because they are nocturnal, naturally camouflaged and they are scattered over hundreds of miles of grass and marshland.
Snake hunter Drew Reisinger and his friends came up totally empty after searching night and day over the weekend.
"We saw hundreds of gators and beautiful migratory birds, but no pythons," said Reisinger, in the CNN report,who searched around the flood plain of Big Cypress National Preserve.
However, the annual hunt does give scientists the unique chance for research, as they measure and weigh each specimen then do tests for environmental pollutants like mercury, while they also study the snake’s habits and food source by testing stomach contents.
Wildlife conservationists claim that pythons should not be blamed for Florida’s predicament, since it was initially people’s fascination with them for pets that prompted mass importation of the reptiles to the United States.
Nonetheless, the introduction of any non-native species into wild ecosystems have often been the result of human greed and manipulation, without any consideration for potentially devastating consequences.
In their Asian native land, most species of pythons have been hunted to near extinction for the lucrative pet trade and their sought-after skins for trendy purses, shoes and clothing.