The Burmese python, a native of India and other parts of Asia, has recently become an out-of-control menace in the Florida Everglades. No one knows exactly how these snakes got out of control. The guess is that they most likely developed from pets released into the wild, either intentionally or in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. These snakes eat native species like alligators and endangered egrets, and are a threat to humans and their pets. These snakes have no natural predators, so wildlife officials are racing to control the python population. The U.S. Department of Agriculture received a patent in August for a trap that resembles a long, thin cage with a net at one end for the live capture of large, heavy snakes.
The Gainesville field station for the National Wildlife Research Center, which falls under the USDA, is preparing to test the trap in a natural enclosure that contains five pythons. Over the coming months, the researchers will try baiting the traps with the scent of rats and python pheromones. The wire traps will be camouflaged as pipes or other small, covered spaces where pythons like to hide. The 5-foot-long trap is made from galvanized steel wire with a tightly woven net secured to one end. Two separate triggers need to be tripped simultaneously for it to close, which should keep it from snapping shut on such native snakes as the eastern diamondback rattlesnake or the water moccasin. Of course a pair of snake gaiters will keep humans from being bitten by rattlesnakes and other deadly vipers, but gaiters, boots or chaps won't protect you from pythons.
In an effort to control the snake population, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allows hunters with special permits to remove pythons and other exotic reptiles from some state lands. Earlier this year, a state-sanctioned hunt that attracted worldwide media attention was held. Roughly 1,600 amateur python hunters joined the permit holders for a month, netting a total of 68 snakes. A prolonged cold snap has proven to be one of the better methods of python population control, killing off large numbers of the snakes in 2010. The population rebounded, though, because low temperatures aren't reliable in subtropical South Florida. And with plentiful food around, the pythons can get really big! The longest python ever caught in Florida was an 18-foot-8-inch specimen found in May beside a rural Miami-Dade County road.
Everglades National Park encompasses 1.5 million acres, and all but roughly 100,000 acres of that is largely inaccessible swampland and sawgrass, so it's not easy tracking down Burmese pythons. The new traps are definitely an experiment. It may work, or it may not. Traps have been used in the park to collect pythons for research, but not for population control. The area may turn out to be too vast for steel traps to be effective. Time will tell.