Catching an Invasive Burmese Python in Florida's Everglades With a Hunter - NBC 10 Philadelphia
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Catching an Invasive Burmese Python in Florida's Everglades With a Hunter

Estimates are inconclusive: There could be tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of pythons in the Everglades

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    NEWSLETTERS

    How Do You Catch A Burmese Python? A Hunter Shows Us How

    Mike Kimmel scours the Everglades looking for Burmese pythons to capture. Kimmel contracts with the South Florida Water Management District's Python Elimination Program to catch the invasive species and reduce the population of Burmese pythons in the Everglades.

    (Published Friday, Nov. 1, 2019)

    Two lofty cell towers loom over a small portion of South Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve. At their base is Tippy's Outpost, a small marketplace made out of cypress logs and palm fronds.

    Both landmarks sit on a patch of dirt right off Tamiami Trail. Every once in a while, a car zips by and creates ripples in the shallow water.

    Civilization won't be found for miles in either direction.

    When the sun sets, the area becomes the perfect place for a python hunt.

    Mike Kimmel says he's on his second day without sleep trying to capture as many of the invasive reptiles as he can. He works under contract with the South Florida Water Management District's Python Elimination Program.

    This time of year is peak hunting season for Kimmel and other contracted hunters.

    His truck becomes a makeshift mobile home filled with extra clothes, pillows and tools for the hunt. He'll be camping at the park for three to five days — spending his nights driving through levees that pierce the wilderness.

    Burmese pythons were first introduced to Florida through the exotic pet trade in the 1980s.

    According to SFWMD, the python was likely introduced to Florida's Everglades by either accidental or intentional release by pet owners.

    Over the last 15 years, python populations have skyrocketed to the top of Florida's food chain. With no natural predators, the species has decimated indigenous populations of plants and animals.

    A study done by the University of Florida in 2015 looked at how the pythons were affecting food sources for native species. Researchers released 95 marsh rabbits into parts of the Everglades. In nearly a year, the pythons accounted for 77% of the rabbits' deaths.

    Kimmel stands to make up to $150 for every snake he captures and euthanizes.

    Since the python elimination program's inception in 2017, over 2,600 Pythons have been eliminated from the Everglades.

    Earlier this year, Kimmel caught the 2,500th python for the program.

    His dedication and tenacity have garnered him the nickname "Python Cowboy," as well as more than 46,000 followers on Instagram.

    But, for him, the focus has always been about giving local wildlife a fighting chance.

    "I don't think we're going to get rid of the Burmese python all together, but it's all about management," Kimmel says.

    Recently he's been capturing smaller, younger pythons, and noticing a rebound of native wildlife.

    Those small signs of life are the best indications of how the battle against them is going in Florida.

    According to Dr. Stephen Leatherman, earth and environment professor at Florida International University, there is no concrete idea of how many pythons are currently in the Everglades.

    "The low estimate is like 30,000, and people say it could be over 300,000," Dr. Leatherman says.

    Leatherman is in the process of developing a "python calculator" to get a better understanding of the invasive population.

    His projections show that even with hunters like Mike there will be 3 million pythons in Florida's Everglades by 2028.

    The unstoppable boom forced Florida in August to expand the number of hunters it employs and put more money into elimination programs.

    There are currently 25 hunters like Mike navigating the swamp. The expansion would double the number of hunters to 50, paying an hourly rate on top of bonuses for python size.

    Still, even with the hopes of expanding the program, Dr. Leatherman echoes Kimmel's thoughts:

    "It's not eliminating it. It's limiting it somewhat."