The Southeast Asian Burmese python has been wreaking havoc in the Florida Everglades for almost 40 years.
The start of the invasion can be traced back to the 1980s, when pet owners and exotic animals exhibitors started importing the snakes.
The Burmese, one of the five largest species of snakes in the world, was desired for its size. But that size became a big issue for the keepers of these creatures.
No longer able to care for these monsters, which can grow up to 23 feet and 200 pounds, owners began releasing them into the Florida Everglades.
While the fertile subtropical wetland ecosystem was perfect for the cold-blooded predators, it wasn’t until Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 that the snakes became an uncontrollable force.
Damage to zoos, pet stores and exotic animal warehouses allowed for massive number of pythons to get free.
“Thousands of specimens of exotics [sic] species escaped their caging and enclosures during the passing of the storm through south Dade County,” state environmental inspectors reported following the hurricane. “Witnesses spotted hundreds of large snakes and non-venomous snakes loose.”
With no natural predators, the pythons began decimating local wildlife populations.
A 2012 study by the U.S. Geological Survey revealed that since 1997 the populations of raccoons dropped 99.3 percent, opossums 98.9 percent and bobcats 87.5 percent, while two species of rabbits and foxes have all but vanished.
Herpetologist Michael Dorcas said in a 2012 interview with Yale Environment 360 that while “there haven’t been any behavioral studies of mammals in South Florida to look at how they respond to pythons… it’s probably a safe assumption that things like raccoons and possums probably don’t associate snakes with being something that really is a major threat to them.”
To make matters worse, two new studies show that wading birds are the newest targets.
Researchers of a study published in the journal PLOS One found python DNA in the water where wading birds nest. In a second study in the journal Biological Invasions, researchers noted snakes were eating eggs and young birds at a rate five times greater than other predators.
“We already knew that pythons are responsible for eating over 90 percent of the mid-sized mammals in the Everglades,” said study co-author Peter Frederick told WLRN. “[But] this is the first time we have documented pythons foraging on nestlings within densely packed colonies.”
The South Florida Water Management District launched the Python Elimination Program in an effort to curb the python population.
The organization paid each python removal agent a minimum wage plus a bounty for every python they capture, with size determining the extra bonus amount.
In the example below, an 8-foot python would net the hunter an extra $150.
Hunters could also earn an additional $200 for each eliminated python found guarding eggs.
Since the program was launched in 2017, more than 2,000 pythons have been exterminated.
Mike Kimmel, who owns Martin County Trapping and Wildlife Rescue, caught historic number 2,000.
“I hunted all night and hadn’t caught anything but didn’t want to give up. Then, right in the middle of the levee, there it was, just cruising,” the 30-year-old Kimmel told the Daytona Beach News-Journal. “We need to stick to what we’re doing and keep managing the python population the way we are to give our native wildlife a fighting chance.”
According to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, the South Florida Water Management District has set $125,000 aside in its 2019-2020 budget to continue the program.
Kevin Castaneda is the Managing Editor at FloridaInsider.com. His years of experience in journalism, broadcasting and multimedia include roles as a Writer and Web Producer at CBS Miami. He graduated from Florida International University with a Bachelor of Science and Communication.