Burmese pythons are out-competing native species in Florida's Everglades National Park. Officials have asked locals to help them hunt the troublesome invader. Hundreds have signed up for the month-long challenge.
Jim Ferguson walks barefoot and wears a leather hat decorated with alligator teeth. He's a python hunter with an arsenal of weapons for capturing and killing animals in the Everglades. But, he prefers to take a simple approach when it comes to dealing with pythons.
"The best thing to do is grab them by hand, and then throw them in a bag," he said in an interview with DW. When asked if he is ever scared when wrestling a python he answerd with a laugh, "No, no - I love this stuff!"
Florida needs hunters like Ferguson because invasive Burmese pythons are eating through the Everglades' mammals. The creatures are native to Southeast Asia and were brought to the US as exotic pets. But people started dumping the pythons in the swamp when they didn't want them anymore. It's believed that some of the snakes escaped when Hurricane Andrew tore through the area in 1992.
Instead of dying out, the pythons thrived. They have no natural predators to control their population in the Everglades. They can grow as long as five meters and now prey on squirrels, possums, wrens and even deer and aligators.
In addition to being strong hunters, the Burmese python has a very high reproductive capability. One snake trapped last year contained 87 eggs. Ecologist Jerry Jackson from Florida Gulf Coast University says Florida officials underestimated how quickly the snakes would multiply. He explained that it may in fact be too late to reverse the damage these snakes have caused.
"This is an animal that not only is a threat to natural ecosystems, it could be a threat to humans, to young children. We see them in city parks on occasion and it could very easily be a predator to a small human," Jackson warned.
Officials are not certain how many of the pythons now live in the Everglades. Estimates range from 30,000 to over 100,000.
A clash between an alligator and a python left both predators dead in Florida's swamps several years ago
Hunting the hunter
The Florida Wildlife Commission has now decided to cull the pythons by opening a competition called the 'Florida Python Challenge'. Over the course of the next few weeks, people across the state are being asked to catch and kill the snakes. A prize of $1000 dollars (750 euros) will go to the hunter who captures the biggest snake. There will also be prizes for hunters who capture the most snakes.
Officials hope the hunt will curb the slithering predator's population. They also intend to educate the public about the problems caused by Burmese pythons and other foreign species. But the competition won't eliminate the invasive python population altogether, explained Jenny Ketterlin Eckles of the Florida Wildlife Commission.
"It's highly unlikely that we can ever completely get rid of all the pythons. They're hidden in the Everglades, which is a vast wilderness area and much of it is very hard to access," she told DW. "Even though there could be 400 people participating in the challenge, there will still be large portions of the Everglades, which people won't be able to get to."
Bracing for the challenge
Python hunter Jim Ferguson is ready to get out there and track his powerful prey. He is taking his 18 year-old daughter Jennifer with him. She is also a python hunter.
"When you catch them, they send a stinky, musk scent out their rear end that smells really badly. Normally, Jennifer has to deal with the stinky end and I get the end that bites," he laughed.
The Python Challenge ends on February the 10th and will be followed by an awards ceremony at the Miami Zoo. Ferguson and his daughter are hoping they'll bag enough pythons to snag the cash prize.
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