Sunday, January 6, 2013

Controlling Python bivittatus: the 2013 Python Challenge

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and its partners (including Wildlife Foundation of Florida, The Future of Hunting in Florida, University of Florida, Zoo Miami, and The Nature Conservancy) are initiating the 2013 Python Challenge in an attempt to enlist both the general public and python permit holders in a month-long harvest of Burmese pythons. The events associated also include the general public who is invited to two free educational events .

The Python Challenge starts Jan. 12, 2013 with an event at the University of Florida Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center in Davie, and concludes with an Awards Event will be Feb. 16, 2013 at Zoo Miami.

The goal of the 2013 Python Challenge is increasing public awareness about the Burmese python and how this invasive species is a threat to the Everglades ecosystem and its native wildlife. It is also to encourage responsible harvesting of Burmese pythons; talk about how responsible pet ownership; and encourage people to report sightings of all invasive species.

The invasion of these large exotic snakes in Florida, has received international attention.

The 2013 Python Challenge kickoff event will feature training sessions and talks about identifying Burmese pythons and other nonnative reptiles. These activities are for both the general public and the people registered or planning to register to compete in the month-long harvest of Burmese pythons in the Everglades. Additional training will be available for Python Challenge participants on safely harvesting pythons, data collection, and maps displaying the areas where the competition will take place.

In conjunction with the kickoff, the University of Florida Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center will hold its annual open house featuring research and management efforts on a number of invasive species. The "Culinary Safari" chef will be cooking up dishes featuring exotic species. Making invasive species tasty may be the most efficient way to reduce its numbers - consider the number of species that have become threatened or endangered (or even extinct) because of market hunting.

There will be a ceremony to announce the winners of the 2013 Python Challenge. Awards will be given to the people who harvested the longest Burmese python and the most Burmese pythons in the contest's two categories: the General Competition and the Python Permit Holders Competition. The awards include a $1500 for the longest snake.

Michael Dorcas of Davidson College gave an interview to Yale Environment 360 on 12 September 2012. He provided some background on the invasive snake:
"e360: When did this start to become a problem?
Dorcas: Well, the research that we’ve done has shown that Burmese pythons have probably been a reproducing population in the Everglades at least since the 1980s. But it wasn’t until the year 2000, which is the year they were recognized as being established as a reproducing population, that the numbers started to increase dramatically and their geographic range started to increase substantially as well.
e360: How many do you think are out there now? And what kind of geographic range are we talking about?
Dorcas: It’s hard to know exactly where the front is, in terms of the invasion front, and how far north they’ve moved now. They’ve certainly moved south onto Key Largo. They’re certainly covering all of Everglades National Park, all of Big Cypress National Preserve, and are probably well north of Alligator Alley now.
"And in terms of how many, snakes are really difficult to do population estimates on because they’re so secretive. Even big snakes like this are really difficult. You combine that with the fact that you’ve got a terrain in South Florida of which a very small percentage is actually accessible to humans. And you also combine that with the fact that we really can’t do “mark-recapture” on these to determine population size or density. So we really don’t know. People guess anywhere from thousands to millions, but regardless of what people tell you, we really don’t know. But there are a lot of pythons. I would venture a guess at least tens of thousands of pythons. And we’re talking over 5,000 to 8,000 square kilometers. So we’re talking about a big geographic area."
The python harvest has come under some criticism from Scientific American blogger Kate Wong, she writes,
"How reliably can a novice sort Burmese pythons from native Florida snakes—some of which are venomous—in the wild after 30 minutes of preparation online? And obvious human safety concerns aside, can someone who has never handled snakes before really be counted on to kill a large constrictor humanely in the heat of the moment? Check out those euthanasia guidelines—they’re more complicated than you might think. 
"The Burmese python is a very real problem for Florida’s residents—humans and wildlife alike. But the 2013 Python Challenge does not seem like the wisest way to tackle it."
The analogy that immediately comes to mind is opening day of deer hunting season in Wisconsin or Michigan - how many hunters get shot by their colleagues? People who hunt are usually aware of the risks.

At least two media production companies are casting for the  Python Challenge 2013. The Matador Network and Naples-based ITZ Media Group have sent email pitches to hunters who've already signed up for the competition. Emails from both companies say they are pitching a reality show to major cable networks.

In late December a family visiting Florida from Arkansas encountered a 17-foot python while having a picnic, the snake was killed by Everglade's Park Rangers.

It will undoubtedly have a circus atmosphere, some of the participating python hunters will make a spectacle of themselves, some minor injuries can be expected. But, the downsides seem to be a small price to pay for 
controlling Python bivittatus in Florida, and slowing the damage to the Everglades ecosystem.

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