Almost 1000 python hunters signed up for this year’s Florida Python Challenge which ended August 14. The final results are not in but it remains clear that however many were taken, many remain.
Meanwhile, although the situation is grim there are signs of human and animal pushback against the invasive species which may have killed up to 98 percent of small to medium sized mammals in some parts of the Everglades.
The exact number of pythons is unknown but the high-end estimate is about 300,000. The southeast Asian natives arrived in Florida as part of the exotic pet trade some decades ago. Irresponsible owners abandoned some of the snakes. Since they can reach 22 feet in length their danger to local wildlife is obvious.
In August, 1992 a natural disaster compounded the problem. According to History.com Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida and destroyed a breeding facility releasing thousands of Burmese pythons into the region. Now man and nature are seeking to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
The Florida Python Challenge is an annual and growing event which offers prizes to participants who catch the biggest python. The event is state supported and tries to combine hunting with education and conservation. About 950 hunters participated this year.
The challenge is one of a number of efforts the state is making. Pythons can be hunted year round in Florida and other hunting restriction have been eased. There are efforts to get diners to eat pythons. The public is encouraged to report them and the state works to catch them. About 100 full time contractors hunt pythons for the state. Although the hunters are generally paid paid minimum wage they receive bonuses. The bonuses are based on the size of the snake and can add up to hundreds of dollars per snake, according to History.com.
So far, it doesn’t appear the efforts are a striking success. According to NPR the challenge has done little to cut back the population. But the hunters NPR interviewed told the outlet they feel they are making a difference. According to History.com the hunters have removed about 4,000 snakes from the wild, about 2,000 females. The females are capable of multiple pregnancies in a 20 year lifetime. They lay 50 to 100 or more eggs at a time. That makes it hard to argue that there has been no impact. But it also makes clear the size of the problem.
Nature, of course is not entirely defenseless. Alligators will eat pythons and vice versa. It is usually the larger of the two that wins. Recently, Newsweek reported on a cottonmouth that ate a small python. Cottonmouths are poisonous snakes native to Florida. Since many snakes eat other snakes it is likely some number of python hatchlings don’t reach maturity. Large birds and other creatures are also capable of eating smaller pythons.
We reported on the discovery that bobcats (whose population has been severely impacted by pythons) have been seen eating python eggs. Bobcats face a second serious problem, Rabbits are normal prey and as many as 77 percent of rabbits are being eaten by pythons. With nothing to eat bobcats may vanish from the area.
Science may well hold the key to the best control efforts. Hunters are already using male “scout snakes” with implanted trackers to locate females. Sometimes they find them on the nest and are able to prevent the release of 50 to 100 or more nestlings. Python sniffing dogs are being considered. More exotic ideas, such as genetic manipulation of snakes is also being investigated. Genetic manipulation would take a number of forms. It could result in infertile eggs, or the birth of male pythons only.
Australia is a nation continent plagued by invasive species including housecats and rabbits. The nation is also considering genetic warfare. Such genetic efforts have been very successful with insects but challenges for larger animals are great.