MIAMI — Monsters slither throughout the crooked mangroves and serrated sawgrass of Florida’s Everglades, 20 feet long and up to 200 pounds of sinewy muscle built by devouring everything in their path.
In a state chock full of invasive birds, fish, lizards and bugs, the Burmese python reigns supreme.
Bite by bite, these invaders have reshaped the ecosystem they’ve slithered through for almost 30 years, thanks to irresponsible owners dumping their pets in the swamp when they got too big or cumbersome to care for. (That theory that they were released from a lab when Hurricane Andrew blew through in 1992? Busted.)
Scientists have found all kinds of mammals, birds and reptiles in their bellies — the nearly extinct marsh rabbit, wood storks, deer, even alligators.
It’s a five-alarm problem for a state currently spending billions on restoring the Everglades, “the largest environmental restoration in the history of the world,” as “Alligator” Ron Bergeron, a longtime python hunter, businessman and member of the South Florida Water Management District board, puts it.
“Can you imagine an Everglades with no wildlife?” he said. “You can’t have a healthy ecosystem without a healthy food chain.”
A decade ago, Florida came up with a unique way to tackle the problem. It sponsored a week-long hunt for the pythons, drawing in would-be reptile slayers from around the world hoping for a chance at the cash prize.
The original python challenge a decade ago netted a mere 68 pythons. This year, around a thousand registrants captured and killed 209 pythons.
On Friday, the state honored the winners of the 2023 competition, which lasted from August 4 to the 13th. The big winner was Paul Hobbs, who hunts with his father (2021’s top prize winner) Tom, his 12-year-old son Dominic and his brother-in-law Austin Park. The team slayed 20 snakes in one week and took home the top prize of $10,000.
“You just have to get out there and grind. It’s not easy,” Hobbs said. “There’s a lot of time where you’re out there catching nothing.”
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