Python hunters target invasive snakes overrunning Florida Everglades

More than 750 people are taking part in a python hunt in the Florida Everglades, hoping to capture the massive reptiles that have overrun the area and prey on native species such as rabbits, birds and even the occasional alligator.

Massive reptiles prey on native species such as bobcats, birds

Ruben Ramirez, who is helping out with this year's python hunt in the Florida Everglades, says you have to think like a snake to catch a snake and consider where it might hide. (Ruben Ramirez/Facebook)

Ruben Ramirez has a simple strategy for hunting the pythons that are overrunning the Florida Everglades.

"To catch a snake, you gotta think like one. You gotta be one," says Ramirez, founder of Florida Python Hunters and an invasive species removal specialist.

Thinking like a python means considering where it might hide or where it might seek warmth after a cold night.

Ramirez is on hand as more than 750 people take part in a python hunt in the Florida Everglades, which have become overrun by the massive reptiles.

Ruben Ramirez caught 18 pythons during the 2013 competition, the most captured by an individual. (Ruben Ramirez/Facebook)

The Burmese python is not native to the state and has spread as a result of intentional or unintentional release by pet owners. It preys on native species such as bobcats, other reptiles and birds. Domestic cats have also fallen victim to the reptiile that can compete with native snakes and alligators for habitat and prey. 

The Burmese Python Removal Competition runs until Valentine's Day. The main purpose is to remove the snakes from the Everglades. This is the second competition, following the first in 2013.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is partnered with several conservation groups and others in organizing the hunt and says it has several new goals this year.

Getting the public involved

"We would like to increase the effectiveness of the public in identifying and removing invasive species," said spokeswoman Carli Segelson.

"We also want to expand the public's participation by offering comprehensive opportunities to actively participate in managing invasive wildlife."

Burmese pythons have been breeding and spreading throughout south Florida. According to the United States Department of Agriculture website, established populations were first found in 2000.

Burmese pythons such as this four-metre specimen captured during the 2013 hunt in the Florida Everglades can hide in rocks or overgrown vegetation. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

Pythons reach sexual maturity at four to five years. The female can lay 30 to 100 eggs in the spring, about three months after mating. They hatch in six to eight weeks.

It is estimated that a snake's survivorship in a foreign habitat may be 30 per cent in the first year. Burmese pythons that do survive may live up to 30 years in the wild.

Humans and alligators are the python's predators. Luckily for the python, alligators may not recognize it as prey. In 2005 in the Florida Everglades, a four-metre python ate a two-metre alligator before bursting.

There aren't any reports of python attacks on tourists. Strangulations that have been reported have come from pet owners. 

Pythons kill by constriction, grabbing their prey with their teeth and spiralling around them, squeezing until breathing stops.

Burmese pythons can be caught alive or dead for the competition. To catch one alive, it should be pulled into the open with a snake hook, if you're brave enough. Approach it from behind and pin it firmly and quickly behind the head. Grasp it around the neck and bag it.

"I don't go out there and kill them. Or use a machete," said Ramirez.

Ethical obligation

If they aren't caught alive, by hand, the approved weapons to kill the reptiles are a captive bolt, which is a device used for stunning, a firearm, a machete or another appropriately sharp tool.

There is an ethical obligation to ensure it is killed in a humane manner resulting in immediate loss of consciousness and destruction of the brain.

The carcass of an alligator protrudes to the right from the body of a Burmese python in Everglades National Park in 2005. (U.S. National Park Service/Associated Press)

The commission will study data from the pythons to help learn where they are found and how to better manage them. Most of the snakes caught alive will be euthanized because there is no facility to house them.

Ramirez won the 2013 python removal competition.

"I caught the most [snakes] which was 18 and I caught the largest in size. My biggest [ever] is 17 feet [five metres], 180 pounds [82 kilograms]. That will give you a run for your money."

The Burmese python is one of the largest snakes in the world, reaching up to seven metres in length and 90 kilograms in weight. It can grow as thick as a telephone pole.

"You could walk by a 15-foot [4.6 metres] Burmese python and you wouldn't even see it," says Ramirez. "There are signs to show you it's there. It's gonna be lying out from the bank, rock piles."

A pile of rocks or overgrown vegetation can camouflage pythons for the untrained eye.

Hard to count

"I know south Florida like the back of my hand. Every blade of grass, every rock, I know," says Ramirez.

The commission doesn't have an official population count of Burmese pythons in the Everglades.

"These snakes are so well camouflaged and they're in areas that are difficult to access so it … would be very difficult to come up with an accurate assessment of how many are out there," says Segelson.

There are two types of people who participate in the competition. According to Ramirez, in 2013, "Ninety-nine per cent were from out of state, walking around with guns and machetes, more of an adventurer." The other type is dedicated to finding them for study purposes.

Rodney Irwin uses a snake hook to look under rocks in the Everglades in search of Burmese pythons during Python Challenge 2013 near Homestead, Fla. (Bob Sullivan/Reuters)

Ramirez falls into the latter category. He doesn't like to kill the pythons. He feels bad for them. He will not be competing in the removal this year. Instead, his goal is to go out with teams and show them how to find the pythons.

"It's years of experience. If you say, 'I'm going to find a human,' you're not going to go to the middle of the Sahara to find a human. You're going to go to a neighbourhood. I target where they're going to be."

Nearly 1,600 people participated in the hunt in 2013, but only removed 68 snakes.

This year, 940 participants have registered for the competition and have caught 66 snakes so far. The person who finds the most pythons wins $3,500.

If participants want a keepsake from their experience, they can hang onto the snake's skin, which can be tanned and fashioned into a leather product. The skin might be sold.

It's even legal to eat the snake. But because of high mercury levels, it's not advised.

Tiffany Bateman is a registered nurse and a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.