Hunting the Burmese python

The snakes, deemed an invasive species in Florida, are being killed - but ecologists say the state has bigger problems.


    Key Largo, FL -
    Bret Moore is patrolling the hot and dusty trails of the Florida Everglades for one reason: to hunt the Burmese python.

    "I'd try and catch it alive first," the self-described woodsman told Al Jazeera, as he slung a silver-barrelled shotgun over one shoulder.

    "I just thought it would be something cool to do, to come out here and jump on a big snake."

    Licensed hunters such as Moore have been encouraged by state officials to kill Burmese pythons on sight - and seemingly for good reason; they say they do not belong here. Over the past few years, reports of giant snakes have grown in the sunshine state - as have discoveries of these huge reptiles in swimming pools, residential gardens and, in some cases, private homes. The snakes responsible for these headline-grabbing events are usually exotic pets, released by irresponsible owners.

    This Burmese Python was found in the Everglades with the help of two former bomb-sniffing dogs [REUTERS]

    The Burmese python can grow to more than five metres, more than a handful for most would-be snake wranglers - and can typically lay up to 36 eggs each spring.

    It is also thought that Hurricane Andrew played a role in helping to establish a breeding population of Burmese pythons in the Everglades. When the storm ripped across south Florida in 1992, it destroyed a facility that housed almost a thousand pythons - and many believe that population of escapees has successfully begun to breed.

    "They've eaten our wading birds and our song birds, they've eaten alligators and even full-sized deer," said Alison Higgins of The Nature Conservancy charity. "People are seeing these things and they don't know what to do. If we can just get them before they find each other to breed, I think its possible we can scoop most of them up."

    Training programmes aimed at wildlife officials and others who work in the Florida Everglades have been running for several years. They teach workers how to safely approach and catch pythons in the wild, but the Everglades are vast - the 1.5m acre (6,100sq km) Everglades National Park covers just 20 per cent of this subtropical wilderness - and, in many places, the area is almost impossible to navigate.

    "It's doubtful that we'll ever completely be able to remove them from the Everglades," says Jeff Fob, who is part of the Venom One Unit of Miami-Dade's fire department. "But if we can stem the tide of the spread, then I think that's an effective use of programmes like this."

    The invasion of Burmese pythons in Florida has captured the imagination and tapped into the primal fears of people around the world, and it is easy to see why. Pictures of giant snakes devouring alligators or lounging around in a swimming pool are bound to attract attention and boost audience figures.

    But some among the scientific community are sceptical about claims that Burmese pythons are wiping out indigenous species or that they pose a huge danger to one of North America's most delicate eco-systems.

    "They're not having the earth shattering, cataclysmic effects that some people are attributing to them," biologist Shawn Heflick told Al Jazeera. Heflick, host of Python Hunters on National Geographic Wild, thinks that the python problem is being exaggerated, as a way of distracting people from far more pressing issues.

    "Mercury levels, water pollution, hydrological cycles. All of these things that humans are directly responsible for are serious, a lot more serious than these pythons," he said.

    A state-wide ban has now been placed on the import of various types of pythons into Florida - but there is already a breeding population of Burmese pythons in the Everglades and it seems there is little anyone can do to completely remove them.

    Some politicians, such as Democrat Senator Bill Nelson, have even predicted that this native of south-east Asia could eventually spread throughout the south eastern United States wreaking havoc as it goes. "These snakes sure-as-heck don't belong in the Everglades," Nelson told press in January. "And they certainly don't belong in people's backyards."

    Others point to the view that the harsh Florida winter of 2010 - the coldest in nearly 30 years [PDF] - may have killed a great deal of the population off.

    One thing remains almost certain, and that is that this beautiful animal will continue to capture headlines - and the imagination of millions.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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