ECOVIEWS: Could a prize-winning python be in your future?
Q: Will you please comment on the python hunt being held in Florida.
A: I have good news and bad news for anyone interested in the state-sponsored hunt for this invasive species. The bad news is that you have missed the deadline to register for the Jan. 12 opening day. The good news is that you can still pay the $25 entry fee and participate in the contest, which ends Feb. 10. You can then walk around in a swamp looking for something you are unlikely to see. You might prefer a destination in southern Florida where you will be sure to enjoy yourself.
But before you decide to opt for Disney World or South Beach instead of the Everglades, keep in mind the rewards being offered in the python hunt: $1,500 for whoever catches the most pythons; $1,000 for the longest. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s stated purpose is “to raise public awareness about Burmese pythons and how this invasive species is a threat to the Everglades ecosystem, including native wildlife.” Nowhere is it stated, or even implied, that letting hundreds of untrained citizens armed with captive bolt pistols and other firearms roam southern Florida’s wildlife management areas will make the smallest dent in Florida’s massive python population. To get details about Python Challenge 2013, check out www.pythonchallenge.org. Meanwhile, I have four predictions about this absurd exercise.
1. Most of the participants will never see a python in the wild. More than 1,000 people have signed up to hunt for these huge snakes, and in the first three days, only 11 pythons were found. Eleven! This translates to the capture of not even one python per day for every 250 people. Five days after the competition opened, only 21 had been brought in. That’s still only about four a day. Not so good if you are trying to reduce the invasive Burmese python population, which is estimated at more than 100,000 in the Everglades. And when the next batch of 60 to 80 eggs hatches out, the python hunters will have fallen even further behind. According to one report, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson from Florida went tromping around on a python hunt last week. The score was photo op 1, pythons seen 0.
2. Most of the pythons in the Everglades will continue to elude capture. Why? (1) Many wanna-be python catchers will not venture farther than a football field length from a highway because most people who have no experience trekking through the wild areas of southern Florida are not going to get out of sight of their car. (2) The thousands of pythons living in the hundreds of square miles of dense vegetation that constitute much of the region will be incredibly well camouflaged when on the surface. (3) The pythons will disappear under cover, concealing themselves completely, when they detect the slightest vibration caused by human footsteps. Wearing camo may make a python hunter look cool. It makes no difference at all to a python.
3. Due to mistaken identity, native species of large snakes such as Everglades rat snakes and watersnakes will die at the hands of well-meaning python hunters.
4. Accusations will be made, with or without documentation, that some of the pythons captured were actually brought in as ringers in order to win a prize. Such suggestions have been made for years about rattlesnake roundups in which snake wranglers get awards for prize snakes. Claims have been made in Georgia that some of the eastern diamondback rattlesnakes on display did not originate at the festival location.
Pythons are clearly a problem in southern Florida and deciding how to most effectively deal with them is still being discussed and debated. One solution is to resign ourselves to the fact that they are now part of our North American fauna. Meanwhile, it’s not too late to sign up for the ongoing hunt and get someone you care about a python belt or purse for Valentine’s Day. Happy hunting.
Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.