For years, Florida wildlife officials have struggled to tackle a growing problem in the Everglades: the invasive Burmese python, which devours the mammal population (like raccoons, opossum and rabbits) and out-competes native predators (such as alligators) in the process. The species, which is native to Southeast Asia, has been introduced over the last few decades when local pet owners release them into the wild.
Years of Python Challenges, in which amateur hunters compete to catch the most pythons (or largest python) for a sizable cash prize, have resulted in thousands of snakes being caught, but other, more extensive methods are needed to curb the Burmese python population.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the University of Florida are hoping to learn those methods from two of their newest recruits: a pair of Irula tribesmen from India who are expert snake-hunters. The tribesmen removed 14 pythons in two weeks, including four from the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Key Largo. One of the snakes was a female measuring 16 feet long, according to local news reports.
While 14 snakes may not seem like a lot, consider it in the context of the Python Challenge. In 2016, about 1,000 hunters caught 106 snakes in one month; in contrast, these two tribesman caught an average of one a day for two weeks.
The pilot project is also relatively cheap: just $68,888 for two tribesmen and two translators for two months.
Armed only with tire irons to punch through dense Burma reed and sharp limestone rock and trailed by biologists, the pair are on the lookout for the sparkle of snakeskin in the bush. They’re also searching for what the snakes left behind: a ripple in the sand, a tunnel through grass or scat. All of these signs can alert them to the presence of the snake, the malai pambu, a snake far bigger than any the men have encountered in India.
Their methods are proving successful, according to UF biologist Ed Metzger, who told the Herald that seven of the snakes captured would not have been found without the trackers. Florida officials have often focused on areas where snakes are known to bask, such as roads or levees. But the tribesmen head straight for thick brush and have impressed local officials with their ability to correctly predict the size and sex of the snake they’re tracking.
It’s too soon to say if the unique partnership will be a success, but the results will be compared with other efforts, including the so-called “Judas” snake project, where biologists send out radio-tagged “Judas” snakes to reveal the location of other snakes. In the meantime, the search continues for a sure-fire way to stem the growth of the invasive Burmese python in the Florida Everglades.