April 12, 2006

Biologist battles killer pythons in Florida park

By Tom Brown

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Florida (Reuters) - The man
leading efforts to eradicate giant Burmese python snakes from
Everglades National Park sounds almost fearful, and certainly
not optimistic, when he talks about the chances of wiping out
an invasive species he calls "the enemy."

That is partly because Skip Snow, a 54-year-old veteran
wildlife biologist with the U.S. National Park Service, says he
doesn't know how many of the slithery monsters are in the
swampy Florida park.

"It could be literally thousands," Snow told Reuters. "It
could be a number I don't want to know. It could be scary."

It's scary indeed, especially since one of the creatures
was aggressive enough to try devouring a 6-foot (1.8 meter)
alligator in the park last year. The alligator is believed to
have been dead already and the snake also died trying to digest

There have been other encounters between pythons and
alligators but the gators, which are pretty tough customers,
aren't what Snow is worried about.

What keeps him up at night is the threat the prowling
pythons pose to a delicate subtropical wildlife haven with a
whole catalog of rare or endangered native species.

The pythons, with their razor-sharp teeth, have been eating
practically everything that moves in the park, from small
mammals to large wading birds, said Snow.

The first Burmese pythons sighted in the park's savanna and
steamy swamps, back in the mid-1970s, are thought to have been

The snakes, which are native to Southeast Asia, can be
purchased legally in the United States. But many owners,
especially so-called impulse buyers, tend to release them in
places like the Everglades once they realize they can grow from
just a foot to about 12 feet long in their first two years of

Dumping reptiles is illegal and Florida lawmakers are
currently mulling stiffer penalties, including possible jail
time. The state will also hold its first "snake amnesty day" on
May 6, for anyone who might want to dispose of their Burmese
pythons or other members of the Boa family legally.


If irresponsible pet owners were the only source of the
pythons invading Everglades National Park, Snow might not face
such a daunting challenge.

Compounding his eradication problems, however, is the fact
that the bone-crushing snakes are also breeding in the wild.

"There's every evidence that the problem is increasing in
scope and scale," said Snow. "We have a breeding population.
They're now breeding within Everglades National Park."

A total of 212 Burmese pythons have been killed or removed
from the park or adjacent lands since 1995, including 95 last
year alone.

But that is surely just the tip of the iceberg and Snow,
who has spent the last few years on the park's python
eradication program, readily acknowledges that his efforts are
only just beginning to get under way.

He recently experimented with a beagle puppy nicknamed
"Python Pete," using him to ferret out the snakes and said he
also had some recent success with "Judas snakes" -- using
pythons implanted with radio transmitters to track down other

The puppy, incidentally, was kept on a leash to prevent him
from becoming what a Park Service newsletter described as "a
snake snack."

Florida authorizes state law enforcement officers to shoot
pythons and wildlife officials "euthanize" those they catch.

"We can probably see control," said Snow, suggesting that
one of the world's largest snakes can be prevented from totally
overrunning the park.

"I don't think we've got a very good assessment of whether
or not we can eradicate," he added, however.

Scott Hardin, exotic species coordinator for the Florida
Fish and Wildlife Commission, was also pessimistic when asked
about the chances of stomping out pythons or other non-native
animals that run wild in parts of the southernmost U.S. state.
The invaders include dragon-like, Nile monitor lizards and
raccoon-sized African rats.

"Rarely do you have a chance to eliminate anything, almost
ever. Control is pretty tough, so what we really want to do is
our utmost in prevention and education," Hardin said.