What it’s like to be a Florida python hunter

By Willie Drye
for NatGeo News Watch

Greg Graziani thinks Burmese pythons are “fascinating animals” that shouldn’t be in the wilds of South Florida.

“They’re beautiful animals,” Graziani said of the non-poisonous snakes that can grow to 14 feet or longer. “If I could take them all to Southeast Asia, I would, but I can’t foot that bill.”

Graziani is one of about 15 people who have been issued licenses to capture or kill the giant constrictors in Florida. The National Park Service – which administers the Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, both near Miami, wants the non-native reptiles eradicated from its lands. So do the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the South Florida Water Management District.

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From left, Greg Graziani (licensed to kill or capture pythons in South Florida), Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC)Commissioner Ron Bergeron, Shawn Heflick (another permit holder), and FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto.

Photo by Patricia C. Behnke/Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission

Biologists fear that the giant snakes will decimate native animals, including protected species of wading birds. [Read conservation biologist Stuart Pimm’s blog post: Pythons in Florida Everglades: Is the Snake Invasion Only Beginning?]

“I hate that we have to euthanize them, but they don’t belong there, and what are we going to do?” Graziani said.

The Burmese python’s native habitat includes China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Nepal. But they’ve also become a favorite of American snake collectors, especially in South Florida, where the climate is similar to Southeast Asia.

Graziani made weekly trips during last summer from his home in Venus, Florida to hunt pythons. He caught “three or four” during these trips, and plans to resume hunting them this year.

The best time to hunt the pythons is between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. during a moonless night, but Graziani doesn’t plunge into the thick vegetation seeking the snakes. The cold-blooded animals are attracted to the warmth of roads that have baked in the sun all day, he said.

“They’re ambush predators,” Graziani said. “Night time is when they’re going to move. The worst time to hunt is during a full moon. There are no reptiles or frogs on roads during the full moon. I assume that’s because they know all other predators are out there because they can see so well.”

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Shawn Helfick, a licensed python-hunter, measures a Burmese python.

Photo by Patricia C. Behnke/Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission

Graziani doesn’t carry a lot of equipment with him during a hunt, but he has equipped his truck with high-powered spotlights. And there’s no special technique for capturing the pythons. When he sees one, he simply grabs it by the tail and waits for it to start striking at him.

“I let it strike five to seven times,” he said. “Each strike became more labored. I wait for it to tire itself out.”

When the snake tires, Graziani grabs it behind the head and puts it into a large, lockable plastic container. He was bitten once by an eight-and-a-half foot python that his son captured. He said the bite wasn’t especially painful, but one of the python’s small, needlelike teeth did break off in one of his knuckles.

“We expect a defensive bite. It wants to hit you and get away,” Graziani said. “When that happens, it’s like 80 or 100 hypodermic needles puncturing your flesh and coming out.”

Graziani said the bite healed without becoming infected.

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Burmese python caught in Everglades National Park. More than 1,200 Burmese pythons have been found in the Florida Everglades.

Photo courtesy NPS

Graziani euthanizes the snakes captured on Florida Fish and Wildlife lands by severing the brain from the spinal cord. Snakes that are taken on National Park Service lands are turned over to the Park Service, which euthanizes them.

“National Geographic Explorer: Python Wars” airs in the United States on February 9, at 10 p.m. on National Geographic Channel. Click on the video above to watch an excerpt. Click here to view more excerpts and get additional information.

George Horne, deputy executive director of the South Florida Water Management District in West Palm Beach, said that more than 1,200 pythons have been found in a relatively small area in the Florida Everglades. And there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of pythons found in the past year, Horne said.

Some of the pythons were released into the wild by people who became disenchanted with their pets, Graziani said. But most of them escaped into the wilds when powerful Hurricane Andrew tore into Homestead–just south of Miami–in 1992, he said. At least 1,000 pythons escaped when the hurricane destroyed a dealer’s containment area near Homestead, he said.

Estimates of the number of pythons in South Florida vary widely, from a few thousand to as many as 150,000. Graziani thinks the number probably is between 3,000 and 5,000.

Horne said the snake-hunting permits were first issued about three years ago as part of the South Florida Water Management District’s effort to restore the Florida Everglades.

“One of the key things with the Everglades restoration, one of the measures of success, was that we had to be able to increase the bird population,” Horne said. The increasing python population could make it impossible for the bird population to increase, he said.

“We could have pristine water quality, and it could be lifeless except for these large predators,” Horne said.

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Willie Drye is the author of “Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935,” published by National Geographic, and a regular contributor to National Geographic News. He has also written for the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Washington Post, the Tampa Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel.

Drye is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Visit his blog: “Drye Goods.”

 

 

Additional information:

The first phase of the FWC program to capture or kill “reptiles of concern” on state-managed lands in South Florida began July 17 and ran through October 31, 2009. Ten of 15 permit holders made trips on the wildlife management areas, capturing a total of 39 Burmese pythons, according to FWC. No other reptiles of concern were found.

The 2009 permit period requires potential permit holders to be Florida residents and to have a digital camera and a GPS unit. Permit-holders must “also must have experience in capturing wild snakes, handling large constrictors, euthanizing reptiles and working in remote areas,” FWC says.

Permit-holders are required to photograph and mark GPS locations, photograph and describe stomach contents of euthanized snakes, file reports with the FWC within 36 hours of capture, and euthanize pythons on site, or transport live pythons to be euthanized at a location with veterinary facilities, or deliver live pythons to someone who has a permit to keep a reptile of concern.

The FWC does not pay bounties for pythons. Authorized hunters may sell the hide and meat–although the agency notes that Burmese pythons from Everglades National Park have been found to have very high levels of mercury and may not be recommended for human consumption.

For more information, visit the FWC’s Python Removal Program Web site. 

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Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn