'Python fever': Hunting for snakes in the Florida Everglades

Story highlights

  • Florida's Everglades is a vast area with a climate perfect for pythons to hide and thrive
  • Donna Kalil among hunters trying to rid non-native species that preys on wildlife

Homestead, Florida (CNN)Donna Kalil couldn't hear a python slithering in the grass with the wind blowing. But spotting a tunnel-shaped snake trail, she disappeared into the cattails hunting for one.

The Kendall, Florida, resident carried a stick. A knife and 9 mm handgun were attached to her belt.
A real estate investor-turned-amateur python hunter, she spotted a ribbon snake clinging to a leaf. She hoped it was a harbinger of success in her quest to find a Burmese python in the Florida Everglades.
    Kalil, 54, was among a group of python hunters Thursday working to rid Everglades National Park and surrounding areas of the non-native species of pythons that prey on wildlife.
    The 25 hunters selected from 1,000 applicants will be paid to euthanize pythons under a $175,000 pilot program by the South Florida Water Management District. The two-month hunt ends June 1.
    The district hopes the hunters kill many pythons. But if Kalil finds a python, it would be the first snake she will have ever killed. "I'm not really happy about it," she said. So, what's a python hunter to do?

    Hunters the best solution

    The pilot program follows python challenges run by another agency that led to the capture and killing of more than 174 Burmese pythons across Florida in monthlong competitions in 2013 and 2016. Hunters from the Irula tribe in India also separately caught many pythons.
    The Burmese python is native to Southeast Asia. It was first discovered in the Everglades in the late 1970s and began appearing on water management district land in 2005, said LeRoy Rodgers, an invasive species biologist with the water management district.
    The python runs wild with no natural predators in the Florida Everglades.
    The snakes, which have no natural predators in the region, were likely introduced into the Everglades after a significant release, he said. That release was either accidental or intentional, University of Florida researchers say.
    The Everglades, known as the river of grass, is a vast area with a climate perfect for the pythons to hide and thrive. There are no precise population figures, but there are believed to be thousands living in the ecosystem in Miami-Dade County, Rodgers said.
    A 2012 study by Virginia Tech University, Davidson College and the US Geological Survey found that pythons caused the populations of rabbits and foxes to vanish and the numbers of raccoons, opossums and bobcats to drop by as much as 99% in the Everglades.
    The giant constrictors have also been discovered farther north in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
    The water district has tried to cull the population in a several ways, including dedicating a staff member to hunting the pythons since 2006, Rodgers said.
    "We really haven't found any tool that works better than human hunters going out in the field looking for them," he said of the snakes that can grow to about 17 feet long and weigh up to 150 pounds.

    Not in it for the money

    The water district program will pay $8.10 an hour for up to eight hours of hunting a day. A python measuring 4 feet fetches an additional $50. Each additional foot will draw $25 more. Hunters can make an extra $100 if they kill a python guarding a nest.