by SC Reporter Teresa Vazquez
Traveling through the water ways, the Burmese Python has invaded South Florida’s native ecosystem. The South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) Python Elimination Program aims to bring back balance to the Everglades.
“The Everglades is one of the most unique ecosystems in the world that supports a high degree of biodiversity,” Program Manager Michael Kirkland said. “We must do everything in our power to restore the ecological functions of the Everglades and protect this important habitat for our native wildlife.”
Established in March 2017, SFWMD’s Python Elimination Program has followed the motto: “The Protector of the Everglades,” working around the clock to debilitate the havoc of the pythons. Program manager Michael Kirkland explained the invasion.
Burmese Pythons are an invasive species native to Southeast Asia. The constrictors were introduced into South Florida through accidental and intentional release caused by the exotic pet trade business, Kirkland explained.
Intentional releases were made by owners who could no longer house their pet pythons—which can exceed 20 feet in length. While the most notable accidental release occurred in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew is believed to have damaged a breeding facility.
These invaders have thrived and reproduce in great numbers due to the similarities between their native environment and South Florida’s, explained Kirkland. Every python poses a threat to Florida’s ecosystem.
Python hunters Geoff Roepstorff and Robbie Roepstorff have seen the effects of the invasion firsthand. When they began hunting five years ago, the couple was shocked by what they found—or better, didn’t find— on their hunts. Mammals native to the area, like raccoons, skunks, and foxes were virtually nonexistent.
“It’s is all about balance,” Robbie said. “There was a real environmental balance [in the Everglades], you saw so much other wildlife mammals, since the pythons have come along it’s destroying that balance.”
The balance spoiled as the constrictors became the Apex predator of the Everglades. A spot that was held by the native American alligator, Geoff explained.
Researchers have been able to correlate the notable decline in mammal population in the Everglades with the invasion noted Kirkland. The number of fur bearing animals decreased by more than 90 percent over the last 20 years.
Python hunters have become the first line of defense in the vital fight against these invaders.
After checking the weather and making a plan, licensed contractors make their journey to the project area to begin their hunt—usually between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m, explained Kirkland.
“I can always spot a python hunter from a mile away,” Kirkland said. “We all have kinked necks and blood shot eyes from the uncomfortable position you must hold for hours on end, the dust, the bugs, and the exhaustion.”
The contractors aren’t just any hunters shared Geoff. They are conservationists who know how to execute their goal without harming the native ecosystem.
They drive slowly through the night looking for their target with lights that Geoff said could light up a football field. The contractors rely on their instinct and what could be called their sixth sense which they’ve acquired through experience.
“Over a period of time you establish an eye for it. Because they are so camouflage a lot of times, you’re just looking for something that looks out of whack,” Geoff said. “What’s here now that wasn’t here the last time I was here?’’
Geoff added that other times, it’s an image in your mind that you’ve seen before and because of the python’s camouflage, or being partly exposed, others would not recognize.
The contractors are educated on python behavior that aid in their hunt. Some knowledge came from Romulus Whitaker and two Irula tribesmen who were brought down to the Everglades by the University of Florida.
Whitaker is a well-known herpetologist and wildlife conservationist who works with the Irula tribe. The tribe from India is known for its snake catching expertise. The Irula Tribesmen catch cobras and drain them of their venom to produce antivenom medicine.
Contractors, like Geoff and Robbie, got to hunt with Whitaker and the two tribesmen. Through them they learned what to look for.
Aside from human detection, pythons can be found through radio tag snakes which provide data on python locations. They are usually male pythons that were previously captured, tagged and released, Geoff explained. And used primarily during mating season to locate female and other mating pythons.
Now, Infrared technology is being studied. The goal is to reverse engineer the tech to detect cold-blooded animals like pythons. With this contractors wouldn’t have to worry about missing a python.
And once a python is spotted it’s time for the most satisfying part, the catch.
Whether it be a swift grab behind the neck or pinning down its tail, contractors trap their target by weakening them.
Geoff who has caught a python in water up to his chest prefers to go for the neck. He said it’s faster and safer, but when that fails, he grabs them by the end of the tail. They will fight until they are tired out enough to put in a pillowcase.
Contractors are no stranger to bites or bruises caused by the wrestling match. It’s no surprise when the opponent tries to wrap its muscular body around yours in seconds.
“The key that I was taught was to keep the snake below your waist,” Geoff said. “It’ll wrap you. It’ll use its energy in wrapping you and then it’ll wear out.”
Once caught, the pythons are humanely euthanized according to American Veterinary Medical Association standards and studied by trained staff biologists. The carcasses can be kept by the contractors and most hides are used to make snakeskin products, Kirkland said.
Most days hunters won’t catch a thing, but that is what makes a catch exciting said Geoff and Robbie. “It’s a major feel good when you get one because you feel like you saved a part of the Everglades,” Robbie added.
One python at a time, licensed python contractors are working to protect the Everglades and debilitate the invasion.
Everyday there are hunters from either SFWMD’s Python Elimination Program and or the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s sister PATRIC program surveying the area.
Geoff believes hunters are the key to stopping the invasion. Since 2017, the two programs have caught more than 6,500 pythons. Many which were females who won’t be laying 50 to 100 eggs.
Saving the native ecosystem isn’t exclusive to licensed contractors. According to the FWC website, no permit is required to humanely kill pythons on private lands with landowner permission. They are working on making it easier for the public to aid in python elimination.
“Every python removed from the wild is a win for our native wildlife,” FWC Public Relations Specialist Jamie Rager said.
Rager explained pythons may also be killed at any time from 25 Wildlife Management Areas, Public Small Game Hunting Areas, and Wildlife and Environmental Areas where pythons are known to exist.
Kirkland said they are optimistic that through collaborative efforts between SFWMD and its partners the python population can be substantially reduced further restoring “the environmental integrity of the Everglades.”
“I’m very thankful for South Florida Water Management District, for this program and being good stewards of their lands, that’s where it all started,” Geoff said.
A python caught, is a life saved.