Bounty hunters' battle to eradicate invasive Burmese pythons

AmericaFlorida is relying on bounty hunters to deal with invasive pythons that are spreading rampantly and decimating native wildlife.

Amy Siewe (far right) hunts pythons at night during the summer. Image: Amy Sieve

Python hunter Amy Siewe scans the roads and bushes of South Florida. She is tracking a 6m long invasive Burmese python, slithering through the grass looking for prey to strangle and swallow. In winter, Siewe hunts invasive pythons every day. But in the hot and humid summer, she hunts at night, crouched behind a big truck, wearing eye protection, intently watching the roadside in the hope of spotting a flash of light from The scales on the python’s body crawled from the jungle to the canal. For Siewe, this dangerous job not only brings the excitement of the chase but also helps save the ecosystem, according to BBC.

Burmese pythons were introduced to Florida as pets in the mid-1960s. From 1996 to 2006, about 99,000 pythons were brought to the US to be sold as pets. When some pythons escape into the wild, they find a haven filled with prey such as mice, squirrels and birds, in addition to large mammals including deer and even alligators. Pythons hunt by using their sense of smell to determine the traces left by their prey, then lurk nearby to ambush, strangle the victim to death and swallow them whole.

Siewe can drive at 72 km/h and detect a python. According to her, they spend 85% of their time lying still and if the Burmese python returns to the bush, it is impossible to find them because this species is very good at camouflage. When he finds a target, Siewe often gets out of his car and jumps on the python, then grabs it by the scruff of its neck. Hunters often work in pairs, so Siewe’s colleague will wrap tape tightly around the python’s mouth. Large pythons like the one Siewe caught have sharp teeth that can cause deep lacerations even though they are not venomous. Despite the dangers, Siewe loves his work. “I know every python I catch will make a difference,” she said.

For four years, Siewe worked as a python exterminator for the South Florida Water Authority. She is paid hourly, from 13 to 18 USD, depending on the hunting location and has a bonus for the python she catches, specifically 50 USD for each python under 1.2 m and an additional 25 USD for every 30 cm of additional length. Siewe will receive an additional 200 USD if an active python nest is found. Because it is impossible to transport live pythons, python hunters in Florida are trained to kill the animals with guns. The program, which began in 2017, has captured and destroyed 7,330 pythons to date. Most are under 1.2 m long, although 17 are between 4.8 and 5.2 m long.

On the other hand, Siewe can make extra money by skinning pythons to make accessories. Finally, she can generate income by leading tourists on python hunting trips. Siewe is just one of many hunters who make a living hunting invasive pythons in Florida.

The water management agency hosts the annual Florida python challenge event. The 10-day competition took place in August, attracting competitors from around the world to win $30,000 in prize money. The winner is the person who catches the longest Burmese python.

Both Siewe and Kalil are python lovers. “The hardest part for me was euthanizing them. That was the worst thing,” Kalil shared. But she knows her work will make a difference. Once bounty hunters capture a python, they must notify Kirkland’s team and measure the python via video call. After that, hunters can optionally dispose of the python’s carcasses or use their skins for other purposes.

Eliminate invasive species

Burmese pythons were introduced into Florida’s Everglades wetlands through the exotic wildlife trade and were once sought-after pets. This giant boa constrictor can grow up to 5.5 m long, thrives in the Everglades ecosystem and is very voracious. Mike Kirkland, a biologist specializing in invasive animal research, said furry animals in Everglades National Park have decreased by 90-95% since Burmese pythons appeared in the late 1990s. One study showed that The number of North American raccoons decreased by 99%, opossums also decreased by 99% and rabbits disappeared completely.

Kirkland’s program is a radical approach to the question of how to eradicate invasive species. Python hunters are allowed access to lands managed by water management agencies. Initially, the pilot program lasted 3 months. Currently, the program is in its 8th year and has doubled the number of staff. Currently, there are 50 hunters working for the agency in nine counties. Donna Kalil was one of the original 25 hunters hired by the water management agency in 2017. To date, Kalil has caught more than 850 pythons.

Since implementing the program, the water management agency has removed 8,565 pythons across the state. However, just hunting pythons is not enough, according to Kirkland. He believes that a comprehensive approach is needed to eradicate this invasive species from the ecosystem, through education, policy and scientific progress. In 2021, Florida added pythons to the list of species banned from trading or transport. Anyone who keeps pythons must register and microchip them.

In addition, Kirkland and his colleagues regularly develop new technology to track and hunt pythons. One project uses radio telemetry data, implanting a signal generator into a python. The data from the transmitter is used in two different programs. A program that monitors python behavior and mating habits. The other program tags the male boa constrictor so that he can lead the bounty worker to the female python or even the nest. The project allows python hunters to enter the Everglades, an ecosystem that includes 607,000 hectares of swamps, mangroves, savannas and pine forests.

The water management agency also partnered with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to develop a camera system that uses AI technology and infrared wavelengths to detect pythons. AI algorithms are trained to distinguish Burmese pythons from other python species in Florida.

By Editor

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