They used to be a rare sight, outnumbered by their prey and elusive to all but the most persistent of hunters.
Now, Burmese pythons are being caught at an average rate of three a day in Florida’s Everglades wilderness, where they have established a stranglehold and devastated native wildlife populations.
“We’ve never seen anything like it. We’re seeing a 99% reduction in fur-bearing animals in Everglades National Park and surrounding natural areas,” said Mike Kirkland, manager of a python eradication programme for South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), the area’s largest landowner.
“They are just top of the food chain down here. It’s extremely important to push back against this invasive species and restore some balance to the ecosystem,” he added.
Burmese pythons originated in southeast Asia but have had an established breeding population in the Everglades since 2000, as a result of people who once kept them as exotic pets dumping them in the swamps when they grew too big for comfort.
They are prolific breeders and apex predators, even sometimes taking down alligators and American crocodiles, and their effect on native mammals and wading birds — including threatened and endangered species — has been drastic.
“If you go to Everglades National Park right now you’ll be hard pressed to find a single squirrel, a single raccoon, a single possum, whereas if you were a park-goer back in the ‘80s or prior it was just teeming with life,” said Mr Kirkland.
Brian Hargrove, one of 25 hunters hired to search for Burmese pythons on SFWMD land, said: “I grew up here but it’s not the same. We don’t see the same fish, we don’t see any mammals. All we see really are pythons.”
Dusty Crum, also a hunter, said: “You used to drive in the Everglades and you’d see usually 20, 30, 40 rabbits on any given morning. I’ve only seen one since we started this programme – and he looked scared.”
Last week, Hargrove caught and killed the 14-month-old programme’s 1,000th Burmese python, measuring 11ft 2in. The average is 9ft, though the longest was just short of 18ft. Hunters get paid $8.25 an hour, plus a $50 bonus for every one they capture that measures up to four feet long, and $25 for every extra foot beyond that.
Wildlife managers admit that they have no idea of the size of the snake population now, estimating it anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000. About half of those captured were breeding females, which can lay up to 70 eggs in one clutch, once every year.
Randy Smith, a spokesman for SFWMD, said: “We would assume that taking 1,000 out, perhaps half of those being females with eggs, hopefully we’re starting to make a dent in the population but we don’t know.”