Darkness has descended over Everglades National Park. Donna Khalil and her team drive back and forth along the tolls and access roads in her Ford Expedition, illuminating the roads with spotlights in hopes of spotting a python that’s on the left.
Sometimes they will drive for hours or even days before they see a snake darting across the road, disguised in its natural brown and pea green patterns. When the team finds their target, they will sneak up and grab it close enough to the back of the head to avoid being bitten. At night, pythons hunt, so they are less likely to know what is going on. Invested in their own search for prey, they don’t even realize they are the invasive prey.
“I’ve been bitten so many times,” Khalil says. “It doesn’t feel good, but the biggest threat is when they wrap around your neck or, in the case of the big ones, your whole body.”
However, she says, they let go when you do. If you don’t attack, they won’t either. Khalil is the chief specialist in eliminating pythons for “The Everglades Avengers Team”. She hunts pythons year-round; but right now she’s in the middle of The Florida Python Challenge. The lucky winner of the largest python will receive $10,000. “Lately, we’ve been staying out until 5 in the morning looking for them,” she says.
Taking over the landscape
Hunters like Khalil are desperately trying to remove the invasive snake before it eats up all the remaining wildlife in the Everglades, Big Cypress Wildlife Management Area and other wildlife sanctuaries in Florida.
The first Burmese python was spotted in 1979, possibly the result of a pet released into the wild. Since then, they have taken over the South Florida landscape. Snakes can become huge, with the largest found weighing 215 pounds. Khalil estimates that every snake she catches and euthanizes saves about 100 native species from persecution.
Snakes are generally not dangerous to humans if handled properly because they are not venomous. But, according to US Geological Survey, errors may occur. “We cannot definitively rule out the possibility of a fatal attack,” the USGS warned in an online statement. The agency compares the situation and risk to alligators to snakes inhabiting lakes, canals or other bodies of water in Florida parks and suburban areas. “Attacks are unlikely, but possible.
Burmese pythons, which are native to Southeast Asia, fit in well in Florida because it is a subtropical climate. Snakes are omnivorous, meaning they will eat almost anything from mice to white-tailed deer as the snakes get larger. They have cleared the marshes of much of the state’s staggering wading bird population. Lynx claws have even been found in their massive stomachs.
The diet of snakes consists of at least 47 species of birds, 24 species of mammals and two species of reptiles. “These guys were originally bred in captivity for profit and that’s why they’re so successful. They’re really good at eating and making more snakes,” he says Ian Easterlingbiologist at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
High value targets
Easterling is concerned that invasive predators could create a “Silent Spring” scenario, where suddenly the damage to the ecosystem is done and we’re too late. “If we don’t stop them, one day they won’t have anything left,” he says.
His team places snake trackers in the Big Cypress Wildlife Management Area and uses them to find and euthanize the adult females that carry the eggs that will produce the next generation. “We’re looking for high-value targets,” he says.
These targets are difficult to find because snakes survive by hiding from both predators and prey, both to escape dangerous situations and to successfully pounce. But their only current predator here is humans. “We don’t even know how many are in the wild,” Easterling says.
Khalil hopes she’s making an impact. To date, her team has spotted and killed 680 snakes. But she takes no pleasure in killing them. “These animals are not here, but it is not their fault. I hate to have to do it, but it’s either them or the native species,” she says.