In Nepal, I had been lucky enough to see four Burmese pythons–beautiful animals, classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. This classification means that the species is threatened with extinction in the wild and requires protection, which makes the Florida python invasion all the more tragic. In Florida, the feral population of Burmese pythons is out of control and threatens to destroy much of the native wildlife. As a result of this, the pythons are hunted and euthanized; innocent victims of man’s irresponsibility.
Many of the pythons living wild in Florida were released by irresponsible pet owners who didn’t know what to do with their pet snake when it grew too large, and thought that dumping it in a fragile habitat like the Everglades was a sensible option. People have been doing this kind of thing for years and have released many species of snake so that these days you can find cobras, anacondas and African rock pythons as well as the Burmese pythons, all living in the swamps and forests of the Everglades. A couple of years ago an African rock python killed someone’s pet husky in their yard. A husky is a very big dog: these snakes are not to be messed with!
The trickle feed of snakes being released into the Everglades has clearly contributed to the problem, but one of Florida’s leading snake experts, a man called Joe Wasilewski, has a theory for why the problem has got so out of control. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew slammed into Florida, wreaking havoc as it went. The high winds picked up a wooden shed in which a snake breeder was keeping 900 baby Burmese pythons for sale in the US, and deposited the shed in the middle of Everglades National Park. Even if only a fraction of the baby pythons survived, the fact that they can have 80 babies per brood, and start reproducing at around the age of three years old, means that the population could explode under the right conditions, and conditions in the Everglades were perfect. The Everglades are warm, wet, protected and full of food for the pythons, or at least they used to be: in some areas the native mammal population has declined by over 90% since the explosion in Burmese python numbers, and I was shocked how quiet the Everglades were. I had expected to see and hear a lot of birds and animals, but the place was strangely empty.
I visited Joe at his house to talk about the problem and to see his impressive reptile collection. We had an amusing moment in one enclosure when Joe was on one side of the enclosure stopping an alligator from trying to bite me, while I was on the other side stopping a huge alligator snapping turtle from trying to bite Joe! Joe showed me some of the venomous snakes that he keeps, and showed me the Burmese pythons he has, but the animal he most wanted to show me was his African rock python. This individual had been caught by George Brana and Ruben Ramirez, the Florida Python Hunters, and had been given to Joe for safe keeping. “This is a supercharged animal” Joe told me.
We approached its cage and found it waiting for us, striking at us from inside its enclosure as we came near. Joe was right: this was a supercharged animal! The Director couldn’t miss an opportunity to film some jeopardy, so he asked if Joe and I could go into the enclosure with the snake and catch it, then bring it out so it could be filmed outside of the cage. Joe let out a bit of a whistle and shook his head: “Alright! But you need to know two things. Firstly, whenever I go in with this snake, which isn’t very often, I like to use the element of surprise. Which we’ve lost. And secondly, you must know this Niall, when we go in there, one of us is going to get nailed!”
Join biologist Niall McCann as he heads to the Florida Everglades in search of invasive Burmese pythons on Biggest & Baddest: Python Invasion Friday at 8/7c.