Wednesday, 26 April 2017

When Hunting Pythons, It Helps to Dance Like a Monkey—and Carry a Sledgehammer - via Herp Digest


Florida’s Everglades are crawling with nonnative giant snakes, and authorities have hired an elite corps of hunters to track them down; ‘you juke left, you juke right’

By Arian Campo-Flores, Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2017 

THE EVERGLADES, Fla.—For people who prefer to avoid large, scary snakes, Tom Rahill’s routine won’t be of much use.
 
Anyone desiring to get acquainted with a python deep in the wild, though, would do well to learn his “scalded-monkey dance.”
 
That’s the shimmy Mr. Rahill does when he hunts down a fat Burmese python in the Everglades—a bob-and-weave boogie he uses to avoid the snake’s strikes until he can subdue and grab it.
 
“The attractive thing about this,” he said of snake-hunting, “is it’s very primal.”

There are multiple ways to catch a python, and Mr. Rahill employs a good number of them as a member of an elite squad of hunters the South Florida Water Management District pays to track down these interlopers, which biologists estimate to number in the tens of thousands.

The nonnative serpents have spread through the Everglades, gobbling birds and mammals. They grow as thick as telephone poles and as long as 20 feet. They aren’t venomous, killing by coiling around an animal and suffocating it before gulping. There have been reports abroad of pythons swallowing humans.

“I’m feeling good about this,” said Mr. Rahill one morning last month, trudging through dense brush while swatting mosquitoes and avoiding poisonwoods that can trigger rashes.
Mr. Rahill is the 59-year-old founder of Swamp Apes, a group that takes military veterans into the wilderness for various activities including snake hunting. He said it has bagged more than 400 pythons.

“This is perfect python habitat,” he said, approaching an elevated hardwood hammock. He looked for telltale signs—matted grass, shed skin—jabbing his walking stick into crevices.
He sniffed the air for python poop. “Acrid,” he explained, “more biting than gator” variety.

Mr. Rahill, a telecom administrator, is among 25 hunters the agency selected from more than 1,000 applicants to hunt down the beasts. The elite few include three Swamp Apes members and Dusty “The Wildman” Crum, 36, an orchid grower whose hunting team in a 2016 contest nabbed a 15-foot python.
 
The agency pays $8.10 an hour, $50 per python—must be delivered dead—and $25 for each foot over four.

The program is the latest in a string of attempts by state and federal agencies to eradicate the beasts, from deploying dogs trained to pick up their scent to releasing “Judas snakes” outfitted with radio transmitters to lure other pythons.

In January, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and other parties hired two members of the snake-hunting Irula tribe in India, who the agency says captured 33 pythons over a two-month period.

They began each day with a sort of prayer and “would ask the powers that be for the vision to see these snakes,” said Joe Wasilewski, 64, a conservation biologist who helped arrange the effort.
 
Then they would light up thin Indian “bidi” cigarettes and head out, searching for faint signs of the serpents. “They’re so darn good at it,” Mr. Wasilewski said. “They’re like exterminators.”

None of the initiatives has done much to curb the Everglades-python population. Though the snakes can reach monstrous proportions, their camouflage and tendency to hide in holes and under leaves make them difficult to spot. “You can stand right on top of it in vegetation,” said Bryan Falk, 38, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist, “and you wouldn’t know it.”

Pythons, native to Asia, probably entered the Everglades decades ago when they escaped from, or were released by, people who bought them as pets, scientists say. They eat marsh rabbits and wading birds, robbing native predators such as panthers and alligators.

Bobby Hill, 65, whose job is to remove exotic species from land overseen by the water-management district, said he has found deer hoofs, alligator scales and a bobcat claw in pythons’ bellies. Years ago, along local highways, “you’d see road kill—raccoons, possums,” he said. “You don’t see that too much anymore.”
Hunters say the best time to find pythons is after a cold night when the sun begins to bake the ground where the reptiles head to bask. Most of the year, the steam-bath environment sends them searching for cover.

If a hunter locates one, the challenge is catching it. In dense foliage, Mr. Rahill yanks on the body to pull it toward a clearer spot where it can’t coil around anything. Then he tries to subdue it by the neck.

There are dangers at either end: strikes from its head and defensive sprays from its tail of musk and excrement. “They’ll fling white blobs of poop everywhere,” Mr. Rahill said.
Which is where the scalded-monkey dance comes handy. “You juke left, you juke right” to avoid strikes, he said, until the reptile is tired out and provides an opening to pounce.

Another Swamp Ape, he said, does more of a ballet movement. “He’s a joy to watch, so smooth and fluid.”

Mr. Hill prefers a simpler snake-subjugation tactic: He grabs his Winchester 12-gauge shotgun and fires at the python’s head. “A head shot is considered a humane way” to kill a snake, said Mr. Hill, who said he has been involved in capturing more than 700 pythons.

On the recent day in the Everglades, Mr. Rahill found no snake in the brush, so he tried a method he calls “road cruising.” He hugged the roadside in his black Chevy Cavalier—295,000 miles on the odometer, missing a hubcap—searching through the open window for that python-skin glisten.
He ended the day empty-handed, saying “the key to successful pythoning is perseverance.”

Novice hunters often don’t realize how difficult it is to pursue pythons, he said. “Some people think pythons are waiting on levees with signs saying, ‘Welcome to Florida.’ ”
Days later, farther north, he was tramping through brush and glimpsed a python pattern on a mound, he said. He lunged at it, grabbed at the snake midbody and pulled it into the open. The snake tried to strike him several times before he subdued and bagged it.

The 7-footer yielded a $125 bonus. “I earned that snake,” he said.
The snake earned a swift end dealt by Mr. Rahill’s sledgehammer.

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