The 2016 Python Challenge™ is moving at a record pace in south Florida. Sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the controversial python hunt, ostensibly to remove invasive snakes from the Everglades, produced a disappointing tally of only 68 snakes after 30 days of hunting in 2013. With cooler temperatures in south Florida, 100 pythons have already been taken in 2016. Hunters have capitalized on greater snake visibility as pythons bask openly in the sun to retain warmth. But is the hunt, slated to finish on Valentines Day, really for conservation or just a publicity stunt?
Raising the specter of giant pythons in the Everglades has become a media pastime in Florida. Clearly the appetite for this farfetched story is not easily sated. Lauded as some kind of invasive dragon devouring endangered wildlife and family pets alike, the Burmese python has become the stuff of folklore and myth: a modern day Jaws. A myth promulgated by environmental groups, invasion biologists and the press. Pythons being slain by champions eager to battle dark denizens for the ecological life of the Everglades has become a symbolic narrative that politicians have adopted and regurgitated for their own political purposes.
There is no denying that there are tens of thousands of Burmese pythons in the Everglades, but that’s far fewer than the 100’s of thousands touted by the likes of U.S. Senator Bill Nelson or Dan Ashe of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While pythons are certainly eating rabbits, rats, feral cats and an occasional small gator, what many people don’t realize, is that pythons don’t eat every day like a warm blooded predator. They may only eat a handful of times per year; hardly the “resource hogs” depicted by some biologists.
“Cold temperatures killed thousands of pythons in the Winter of 2009-2010. Numbers appear to be rebounding, but pythons are not being found as readily as they were. The population peaked in Summer of 2009 with highs estimated to be 30,000- 40,000 pythons.” — Shawn Heflick, Biologist and star of NatGeo WILD’s: The Python Hunters
Another part and parcel of the myth is the notion that pythons have no natural predators in the glades. Nothing to temper an unabated population growth, a notion that is patently false. Any biologist worth his salt can tell you, there are dozens of potential predators for pythons in south Florida. Baby pythons are extremely vulnerable to hawks and eagles, wading birds, predatory fish, raccoons, feral hogs, feral cats, not to mention the apex predator of the Everglades, the American alligator, which preys even on adult pythons.
The exaggeration of every detail surrounding the presence of pythons in the glades further clouds the facts. For a variety of reasons the press and the pundits seem invested in demonizing the python. The press loves the idea of a giant snake in the glades “eating everything in its path.” Clearly the public has a morbid fascination with snakes that kindles a primal fear. Environmentalists and agency personnel see opportunity to increase funding for invasive, and or endangered species research not stimulated by less sensational problems. Ambitious biologists seem to bank on decades of pythons study and research in their future. Politicians vilify the snake as a threat that can only be overcome with the appropriation of billions in Everglades restoration dollars. It is a rich issue with a handout for nearly everyone.
“… many are content to chase the ‘Burmese Dragon’ around south Florida like Don Quixote chasing windmills.” — Andrew Wyatt
But the reality is this: Burmese pythons are a relatively low rung on the ladder of serious problems facing the Everglades. They have become a red herring, a distraction, and a scapegoat from more fundamental problems that are either too contentious or too difficult to deal with. Instead of addressing issues surrounding big sugar, pollution, water flow or other more pervasive invasive species threats, many are content to chase the ‘Burmese Dragon’ around south Florida like Don Quixote chasing windmills.
Hunting invasive pythons, although not without merit, is not being pursued in earnest. The National Park Service (NPS) will not allow pythons to be hunted at the epicenter of the population in the Everglades National Park (ENP). Ironically, the NPS appears to be protecting those pythons in order to preserve a study group for ongoing research. For the hunts to be effective, they should be conducted in the ENP in an open and ongoing basis. For now, hunts are restricted to state lands around the periphery of the park, and are limited to 30 days every few years.
The actual 2016 Python Challenge™ takes on an air more commensurate with a rattlesnake round-up or a reality TV show, than an environmental clean-up. It attracts colorful characters from all over the country to ‘hunt’ the dreaded pythons. Vendors have booths and sell t-shirts, snakeskin wallets and belt buckles. There’s funnel cake and BBQ. FWC is omni-present “educating” the public about the dangers of large pythons, how to identify them, wrangle them, and how to report them. But one has to wonder if the purpose is conservation or carnival.
While some concerns regarding invasive pythons are legitimate, the dramatic characterization placing pythons at the center of all of the Everglades ecological troubles is way overblown. Efforts to reduce the population via the Python Challenge are ineffective and disingenuous. Python population will never be significantly reduced unless the hunt is conducted at the epicenter of the invasion in the heart of the ENP. Allowing an open season within the park is the only way to actually reduce numbers through hunting. This ‘Dragon’ hunt can hardly be seen as anything but a side show, while the decline of the Everglades goes on with or without the Burmese python circus.
Andrew Wyatt is a government affairs and policy consultant working exclusively in the wildlife sector. He formerly served as the CEO of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK) where he twice testified before congress as an expert on python issues. Andrew has been interviewed on National Public Radio, by Bloomberg and by The New York Times.