Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Florida adds another feature to winter tourism - a great python hunt - via Herp Digest

By Darry Fears, Washington Post, October 15, 201
Let's see a show of hands. Who hates pythons?
Please lower your hand if you only dislike the giant snakes from Myanmar. For this exercise, hate isn't too strong a word. Florida is staging the 2016 Python Challenge, its second big hunt in three years for serpents that invaded the Everglades a few decades ago and are now vying with alligators for supremacy atop the food chain. This is your chance to kill them.
All you need to join the hunt is US$25 ($38) for an application and a passing grade on an online test designed to help you distinguish between newly arrived pythons and native snakes that have lived through the scrub brush and muck for eons. The month-long event is set for Jan. 16.
When the last python challenge was held about three years ago, nearly 1,600 people showed up with everything from clubs to knives to guns. They had the best intentions. Most thought they could rid the Everglades of Florida's worst swamp thing. But most had no idea about what they were doing. They were terrible at actually tracking, catching and lopping the heads off pythons.
Only 68 snakes were caught, even though the US Geological Survey estimates that 5,000 to 100,000 pythons are in the swamp. The lion's share of the five dozen caught were bagged by fearless trained experts with a keen eye for spotting the snakes and the gumption to snag them by hand.
Media commentators and other naysayers denounced the 2013 hunt as a failure because relatively few snakes were killed. But for the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission, that was so much nonsense.
First, officials there said, the outpouring of news about the hunt delivered their intended message loud and clear: pythons likely released into the wild by pet owners who tired of them are a menace that have turned Everglades wildlife - from opossum to deer to birds, animals that had no idea the invasive snakes were a danger - into snacks.
Researchers who counted Everglades National Park mammals found that 99 percent of racoons had vanished, along with the same proportion of opossums and 88 percent of bobcats, according to a 2012 federal study. Marsh rabbits, cottontails and foxes couldn't be found.
FWCC workers said the nearly 70 snakes removed in the last challenge was significantly more than the number caught over any previous month. The snakes were shot, stunned or beheaded and taken to stations where University of Florida researchers whisked them to a laboratory for a necropsy to study how eggs developed in females and get clues about their movements.
"We gained a lot of valuable information from those snakes," said Carli Segelson, a spokeswoman for the state wildlife commission.
Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida ecology and biology professor whose students performed the necropsies, said critics should consider what hunters were up against. Hunting was forbidden in Everglades National Park, which comprises 40 percent of the swamp, Mazzotti said, and only 10 percent of the remaining terrain is accessible by foot.
That narrowed the estimate of available snakes to 600. So harvesting more than 50 monster serpents exquisitely camouflaged in the swamp is "an incredible success," Mazzotti said.
Everglades National Park will likely be closed to amateur hunting when the challenge kicks off next year. Segelson said the state has expanded the area where pythons can be hunted, and is trying to negotiate with the national park to find some common ground that will allow the challenge to expand there. But federal parks officials are wary of what well-intended amateurs could destroy in a park where wildlife is largely pristine.
State officials added a new feature to the challenge this year to remedy that. For the first time, prospective hunters can sign up for on-site training, where a guide will take them into the swamp to help them understand the snake's habitat and areas where they're likely to be found.
Pythons are hefty snakes that can grow up to 20 feet and weigh 200 pounds. The largest caught in the swamp so far was recorded at a little over 18 feet. But their size is matched by their stealth. In their habitat, their hide acts like a cloaking device, concealing them in the brush.

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