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Starting later this summer, hundreds of fighters will spread across the Florida Everglades.
Their target? An apex predator known to grow up to 18 feet, it preys on animals as large as an alligator and sometimes as small as a forest rat.
These hunters go after the Burmese python – one of the largest species of snakes and a major nuisance to Florida’s flora and fauna.
Native to Southeast Asia, these snakes were first introduced to the Florida wild in the late 1970s, and have since reproduced on an astronomical level.
Beginning August 5 and continuing for 10 days, those hunters (both professional and novice) will fan out in South Florida to humanely capture and kill these snakes for the state’s annual Python Challenge.
Registration for the 2022 challenge opened last week. Anyone interested in participating must first register and undergo mandatory online training on humane killing methods and ways to identify these snakes.
It’s an important program that will help restore Florida’s ecosystem, said Donna Kalil, a professional Florida python hunter. Last year’s competitors removed 223 invasive Burmese pythons from the Everglades.
“To try to keep the Everglades healthy, you have to have the animals that belong in it. And to do that, you have to get rid of the invasive predator, the Burmese python,” Kalil said.
This competition is no easy feat, nor for the faint of heart.
Aside from having to catch a Burmese python, participants have to deal with the harsh environment of the Florida wilderness in mid-summer.
Take it from Kalil – a lifelong snake lover and python hunter. She works as a contractor for the South Florida Water Management District and her job is to capture and eliminate these invasive Burmese pythons.
Last year, Kalil took part in the 10-day competition and came out on top in the professional category after catching 19 pythons. Last year’s grand prize winner, Charles Dachton, successfully removed 41 pythons.
Kalil plans to join in later this summer, but for her it’s just business as usual. For newbies considering winning the $10,000 top prize, Kalil has some tips and tricks.
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Tips for wannabe python hunters
These nocturnal snakes can be found in vegetation, grass and roadsides. Before the competition, the snakes must be presented dead (the state requires certain methods of humane extermination) and within 24 hours of being captured and killed.
Since the competition takes place in August, most pythons will be newly hatched and not as large as a full-grown adult, she said.
While these snakes are not venomous, they are “huge constrictors and they can kill a person,” Kalil is quick to note. She suggests hunting and competing with a mate because of the risks of the harsh environment.
There are several native snakes that call the Everglades home – some of which are venomous (like the cottonmouth). Those are not on the kill list during the competition.
Before heading out, Kalil suggests, “Really, really brush up on your native snakes. Because we’re there to save the environment. We don’t want any native snakes killed, including the venomous ones. They belong there.”
That violation also causes you to be eliminated from the competition and fined.
“It’s not a walk in the park,” she said. “You have to be very aware and understand the environment where you are going.”
How did Burmese pythons take over Florida?
According to the state, Burmese pythons have established themselves particularly well over the years in Florida’s Miami-Dade, Collier and Monroe counties.
These snakes were once popular pets in Florida in the late 1970s and ’80s, Kalil said. But once these animals grew beyond their manageable 3 to 4 feet as babies to over 10 feet, they suddenly weren’t much fun to own, she said. So owners would release them into the wild.
This quickly became a major problem. Female pythons can lay 50 to 100 eggs each year. After a few years, sightings of native mammals in the Everglades declined because of these new predators.
It has also become an expensive business for the state. This year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis approved a budget that will give up to $3 million to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to remove pythons from the Everglades.
To help combat the problem and restore native wildlife, the state launched a program five years ago that focused solely on removing Burmese pythons. For example, in 2017 Kalil started working as a contractor for the South Florida Water Management District.
More than 12,000 of these snakes have been removed as of October 2020, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“Pythons are way ahead of us, so we have a lot of work to do,” Kalil said.
Despite the hard work, it has been an uphill battle.
Python populations have traveled as far north as about Palm Beach County. [They’re] expanding northward because of our changing climate and warming climate. We haven’t had a cold front or a hard freeze since 2010, so that has allowed them to expand their range,” she said.
Kalil still feels like she and her fellow python hunters are making a difference in the long run – it may just take a little longer to see.
“I know that every snake I remove makes a positive difference to the animals that will eat a snake and its offspring if left there,” she said. “By removing one python, I can save 1,000 native animal lives.”