This is the Everglades that they paste on brochures. Summer rains have raised the waters, and lily pads blooming in the searing sun give the sprawling wetlands a Monet mood. But as his airboat glides through the sawgrass lanes 30 miles west of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Ron Bergeron is looking for the worst invasive menace that the “river of grass” has ever faced. “They like to sneak onto islands like this one,” says Bergeron, 65, a self-described “glades cracker” who has spent almost as much of his life out here as alligators do. “They know birds and animals take refuge on them.”
Bergeron is a smart gladesman. He pulls up to the tree hammock, and no sooner have herpetologists Shawn Heflick and Greg Graziani hopped off the airboat, armed with snake hooks, than they find a nearly 10-ft. Burmese python slithering through the mud. Graziani swoops down and grabs the angry serpent’s tail while Heflick goes for the other end. After a brief struggle in which Heflick gets his hand bloodied by a sharp snake tooth, they pull its head with its camouflage-like design into their clutches. “It was trying to cool off deep down there in the slime in this heat,” says Heflick, lifting the python like a trophy as it coils around his forearm and flashes its forked tongue in protest. “Makes it harder to find them this time of year.” When they get back to dry land, they’ll kill it.
So begins the first day for Florida’s first officially designated python posse. The population of these voracious non-native snakes has exploded so frighteningly in this decade as many as 150,000 are estimated to be crawling through the Everglades today and moving north that the state has launched a hunting offensive to eradicate them before they in turn wipe out whole endangered species native to the peninsula, like wood storks and white-tailed deer. Or before they become a human threat: the python problem took a tragic turn this month when a two-year-old girl was strangled to death in her crib by a 9-ft python illegally kept as a pet in her house near Orlando.
Since then, Florida officials like Bergeron and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson have ramped up the python-purge campaign. On Friday, FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto issued the first snake hunting permits for state lands, and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar did likewise for Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge. Researchers are even developing a python drone, a small remote-controlled airplane that can detect the constrictors. For now only reptile experts like Graziani and Heflick have permission to hunt the serpents . But given how rapidly the pythons breed and how big they get a 13-footer ate a 6-ft. alligator a few years ago Bergeron expects skilled gladesmen armed with traps, bows and guns to be recruited for bounty hunting soon. “These monsters are challenging the top of the food chain out here,” he says, “and it’s not natural.”
Naturally, Floridians themselves have played a role in creating the mess. The Sunshine State loves its exotic pets, and sales of pythons, most imported from South Asia, reached $10 million in the state last year. But too many naive buyers, when they discover what a large and expensive chore caring for these snakes can be, simply get rid of them. And because there aren’t a lot of adopt-a-python agencies, they often get dumped in the wild. As a result, Florida last year laid down new ownership requirements, such as $100 annual permits, proof of snake-handling skills and microchips embedded in pythons’ hides to keep tabs on their whereabouts.
After the posse “euthanizes” the morning’s catch by swiftly severing its brain stem, they examine her entrails. “She was eating well out there,” says Graziani, noting the large fatty deposits and the animal fur in her poop. But the snakes are now the prey: everyone from politicians to glades crackers has pledged to stop the invasion of the pythons.