The American alligator and Burmese python battle in the Everglades.
Photo by John Oshun
Burmese pythons can grow larger than 20 feet and weigh up to 200 pounds, making them one of the largest snakes on the planet. Native to Southeast Asia, these pythons are carnivores, eating birds, mammals and reptiles. They are not native to Florida but have wreaked havoc on the Everglades since the 1980s.
The Florida Everglades are home to turtles, frogs, deer, otters, panthers, alligators and countless other fauna, but the introduction of the pythons has disrupted the natural ecosystem.
During the peak of exotic pet trading, Miami became a hotspot for snakes, including the Burmese python. While this trading system is now illegal, irrevocable damage has been done.
It is believed that the trouble started with uninformed python owners releasing their pet snakes into the Everglades, then Category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992 destroyed a Burmese python breeding facility and unleashed a mass invasion.
While the exact number of pythons living in the Everglades is difficult to determine because of their naturally camouflaged black and brown bodies and the inaccessibility of the Everglades, the number is believed to be in the thousands.
The pythons create a huge deficiency of rabbits, raccoons, possums and many other prey animals in the ecosystem. Populations of predators, including bobcats and foxes, also have dropped because the pythons eat their prey and larger pythons even eat some of the predators, which do not instinctively know to fear the snakes.
The only way to save native Everglades animals is often to kill Burmese pythons.
The state of Florida has removed any barriers preventing hunters from killing Burmese pythons and other invasive reptiles on private lands year-round, with or without a permit or hunting license. For public lands, hunters may operate with some restrictions. Information about participating in the removal of invasive species can be found at sfwmd.gov/our-work/python-program.
Female pythons are able to lay up to 100 eggs per year and live longer than 15 years. Culling the python population before it spreads beyond the Everglades will prevent further devastation. Burmese pythons have spawned too far throughout the park to be eradicated. The goal is to keep the population under control to protect as much of the native ecosystem and surrounding areas as possible.
To control the python population, the Water Management District pays contractors who are willing to patrol the Everglades for pythons. The python hunters can earn between $10 and $15 per hour. Hunters are also paid $50 for every python they capture over 4 feet in length and an extra $25 per foot above 4 feet. Pythons as long as 16 feet have been captured. Around 5,633 pythons have been removed by district hunters since the inception of the program in March 2017.
The trading, releasing, invading and eventual culling of Burmese pythons present a warning with consequences for other would-be invasive species. For anyone struggling to care for a python or other exotic pet, Florida has enacted the Exotic Pet Amnesty Program, which allows owners to surrender exotic pets, regardless of regulatory status, to give the animal a chance to find a safe and appropriate home. Owners surrendering their pets do not face legal penalties.
For more information on the Exotic Pet Amnesty Program, visit myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/nonnatives/amnesty-program.