National Geographic News
A juvenile Burmese python caught during a python hunt in Florida.

A young Burmese python found in the Florida Everglades on January 14 during the Python Challenge.

Photograph by Jason Henry, New York Times/Redux

Christine Dell'Amore and Kate Andries

National Geographic News

Published February 19, 2013

It's a wrap—the 2013 Python Challenge has nabbed 68 invasive Burmese pythons in Florida, organizers say. And experts are surprised so many of the elusive giants were caught.

Nearly 1,600 people from 38 states—most of them inexperienced hunters—registered for the chance to track down one of the animals, many of which descend from snakes that either escaped or were dumped into the wild.

Since being introduced, these Asian behemoths have flourished in Florida's swamps while also squeezing out local populations of the state's native mammals, especially in the Everglades. (See Everglades pictures.)

To highlight the python problem, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and its partners launched the 2013 Python Challenge, which encouraged registered participants to catch as many pythons as they could between January 12 and February 10 in state wildlife-management areas within the Everglades.

The commission gave cash prizes to those who harvested the most and longest pythons.

Frank Mazzotti, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Florida and scientific leader for the challenge, said before the hunt that he would consider a harvest of 70 animals a success—and 68 is close enough to say the event met its goals.

It's unknown just how many Burmese pythons live in Florida, but catching 68 snakes is an "exceptional" number, added Kenneth Krysko, senior herpetologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

Snakes in the Grass

Finding 68 snakes is impressive, experts say, since it's so hard to find pythons. For one, it's been unusually warm lately in Florida, which means the reptiles—which normally sun themselves to regulate their body temperature—are staying in the brush, making them harder to detect, Krysko said.

On top of that, Burmese pythons are notoriously hard to locate, experts say.

The animals are so well camouflaged that people can stand right next to one and not notice it. "It's rare that you get to see them stretched out—most of the time they're blending in," said Cheryl Millett, a biologist at the Nature Conservancy, a Python Challenge partner.

What's more, the reptiles are ambush hunters, which means they spend much of their time lying in wait in dense vegetation, not moving, she said.

That's why Millett gave the hunters some tips, such as looking along the water's edge, where the snakes like to hang out, and also simply listening for "something big moving through the vegetation."

Even so, catching 68 snakes is "actually is a little more than I expected," said Millett.

No Walk in the Park

Ruben Ramirez, founder of the company Florida Python Hunters, won two prizes in the competition: First place for the most snakes captured—18—and second place for the largest python, which he said was close to 11 feet (3.4 meters) long. The biggest Burmese python caught in Florida, nabbed in 2012, measured 17.7 feet (5.4 meters).

"They're there, but they're not as easy to find as people think," said Ramirez. "You're not going to be stumbling over pythons in Miami." (Related blog post: "What It's Like to Be a Florida Python Hunter.")

All participants, some of whom had never hunted a python before, were trained to identify the difference between a Burmese python and Florida's native snakes, said Millett. No native snakes were accidentally killed, she said.

Hunters were also told to kill the snakes by either putting a bolt or a bullet through their heads, or decapitating them—all humane methods that result "in immediate loss of consciousness and destruction of the brain," according to the Python Challenge website.

Ramirez added that some of the first-time or amateur hunters had different expectations. "I think they were expecting to walk down a canal and see a 10-foot [3-meter], 15-foot [4.5-meter] Burmese python. They thought it'd be a walk in the park."

Stopping the Spread

Completely removing these snakes from the wild isn't easy, and some scientists see the Python Challenge as helping to achieve part of that goal. (Read an opposing view on the Python Challenge: "Opinion: Florida's Great Snake Hunt Is a Cheap Stunt.")

"You're talking about 68 more animals removed from the population that shouldn't be there—that's 68 more mouths that aren't being fed," said the Florida museum's Krysko. (Read about giant Burmese python meals that went bust.)

"I support any kind of event or program that not only informs the general public about introduced species, but also gets the public involved in removing these nonnative animals that don't belong there."

The Nature Conservancy's Millett said the challenge had two positive outcomes: boosting knowledge for both science and the public.

People who didn't want to hunt or touch the snakes could still help, she said, by reporting sightings of exotic species to 888-IVE-GOT-1, through free IveGot1 apps, or

Millett runs a public-private Nature Conservancy partnership called Python Patrol that the Florida wildlife commission will take on in the fall. The program focuses not only on eradicating invasive pythons but on preventing the snake from moving to ecologically sensitive areas, such as Key West.

Necropsies on the captured snakes will reveal what pythons are eating, and location data from the hunters will help scientists figure out where the snakes are living—valuable data for researchers working to stop their spread.

"This is the most [number of] pythons that have been caught in this short of a period of time in such an extensive area," said the University of Florida's Mazzotti.

"It's an unprecedented sample, and we're going to get a lot of information out of that."

Arthur Millhouse
Arthur Millhouse

I agree with LaVerne. Something like $3.00/foot with a dollar per egg that they contain bonus, would wipe out the invasive species within a few years.

Christopher, I believe the answer to your question can be found. Requiring a license issued by the State of Florida to hunt them should be required. From the documentary programs I have seen, Florida has some of the strictest wildlife laws in the country with some of the highest penalties for violating them.

Alaska manages to allow hunting and people take the wildlife laws seriously. If not before, then after they are hit with thousands of dollars in fines, their equipment confiscated and time in jail.

There are people that should not be hunting just as there are people that should not be driving. Most people however respect our wild areas and true sportsmen are responsible for the majority of funding for wildlife conservation.

One last question, would it be legal to hunt Burmese pythons with a dog? It seems to me that a dog could be trained to find them and would increase the numbers found many fold over.

LaVerne Keller
LaVerne Keller

Considering that this invasive alien species is such a threat to the flora and fauna native to the everglades, why are they just capturing them. This species is hardly a threatened one nor on the brink of extinction in the glades nor anywhere else. So instead of capturing them the state of Florida should be putting a bounty on them similar to the way wolves and other nuisance species were in the past. The bounty should be on dead pythons so they should be sending hunters out to exterminate them not to capture them. The problem Florida is facing at present from the Burmese Pythons is the result of ignorant owners who ignorantly chose to buy them as pets without realizing how large and deadly these animals could grow to be, then when they could no longer take care of them or handle the risks they were allowed to either escape or let the snakes loose in the wild. As a result of human ignorance and outright disregard for the environment these snakes have become a threat to the native species of the state. The best way for the state to deal with this is a two pronged plan, first outlaw the private ownership of the snakes as pets thus banning their importation, and second place a bounty on the ones already in the state and exterminate them except for a very small number to be placed in zoos or other state run or regulated enclosures. That way the threat to the native species is reduced and they won't have to worry about any more of the pythons being added to the environment except in controlled enclosures.

Christopher Hampson
Christopher Hampson

I wonder what the environmental ramifications of  1600 inexperienced hunters, eager to whack snakes, will be on the Everglades?  Will removing 68 snakes a year solve the problem?  Unlikely.  But what about having all these humans tramp through a sensitive ecosystem?

Rachel Atkinson
Rachel Atkinson

@LaVerne Keller  There are quite a few problems with your view...

1. The vast majority of the python population that is now established in the everglades was not a result of pet release. Genetic studies have found that they are all closely related and beleived to have come from a breeding facility only a few miles from the everglades hit by hurricane Andrew in 1992, from which none of the animals were recovered.

2. Putting a bounty on them would only encourage people to encroach upon this already fragile ecosystem for financial gain. We already have one invader there we dont need to add another that would have an even bigger impact.

3.Most if not all pet releases do not have the skills to survive. A snake raised in captivity although it could learn would most likely succumb before gaining the skills it takes to survive.

4. Things such as the wolf hunts and the tragedy of the thylacine are just sad. It is a result of human greed yes the burmese pythons do not belong in the everglades so they need to be dealt with but the wolves and the thylacine were native to those regions. They were hunted down simply because they were making a small problem for the humans that came to live in thier backyard. For these animals it was a method of survival. Wolves need a large territory in order to support the pack so when humans restrict that by ranches and the like the wolves will simply switch from hunting the dwindling game populations (which we also take from) and hunt easier prey such as livestock in order to stay alive.

Rachel Atkinson
Rachel Atkinson

@LaVerne Keller  First off the snakes that are now established in the everglades were not released pets the vast majority are the descendants of the ones from a breeding facility hit by hurricane Andrew in 1992 and that is why we are only starting to see them in significant numbers. The few that are released pets do not have the skills to survive and quickly succumb. Also if a bounty were put on them that would endanger this already fragile ecosystem by giving incentive to the less that honest people to camp out make a greater impact on the ecosystem than the hunts that already go on. After any capture a python is either humanely put down or kept for study. Also things such as the wolf hunts and those of other species are just sad they might take a bite out of peoples livlihood but that is a result of us taking part of thiers. Creatures such as wolves need large territories to support a pack and our encroachment upon thier habitat has forced them to look for easier prey.

vash carroll
vash carroll

@LaVerne KellerPerhaps you didn't see this paragraph?

"Hunters were also told to kill the snakes by either putting a bolt or a bullet through their heads, or decapitating them—all humane methods that result "in immediate loss of consciousness and destruction of the brain," according to the Python Challenge website."

The snakes have to be dead to autopsy them!


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