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Encore: Florida's python challenge does little to reduce the invasive species impact


The Everglades is filled with pythons. And last week, 950 hunters tried to kill them. The python challenge is a state-sponsored hunt for one of Florida's biggest invasive headaches, the Burmese python. NPR's Greg Allen got a close look.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: At a python check station in Miami on the edge of the Everglades, Donna Kalil has just brought in her day's catch, turning it over to Holly Andreotta.

HOLLY ANDREOTTA: Where did you find him?

DONNA KALIL: He was close to Burns Lake, right on 41.

ANDREOTTA: Little guy.

KALIL: Yeah, he's a little guy.

ALLEN: This is the time of year that pythons are hatching and leaving the nest. This one is just a few months old but is already over two feet long. Kalil is a professional python hunter, one of about a hundred contractors paid year-round to find and eliminate the invasive snakes. Last year, she won in the python challenge's professional category, bringing in the most snakes - 19.

KALIL: I knew that I had a set of skills to be able to help. I've been catching snakes all my life. I'm a herper - from being a kid. My brothers were herpers as well, and I followed in their footsteps.

ALLEN: Kalil is proud of her career total. She's brought in more than 600 pythons so far, working mostly at night, driving along levees and roads in the Everglades in her SUV with a specially designed python perch mounted on top.

KALIL: I have two volunteers that sit up there. I have lights all around, and we basically just drive along. You know, once we see a python along the way, you know, somebody yells python. I stop the car, get out, and I sneak up behind it and grab it by the neck and start wrestling.

ALLEN: Kalil says this is a good time of year to be hunting pythons. She says they're on the move, and you might find a big one crossing a road or a levee.

KALIL: The biggest one I caught was 16 feet. It basically took three of us for a ride. I did grab it by the neck and held on. My friend jumped on the back of it. And we were literally riding that thing and basically wearing it out until we got it under control. So, yeah, it was a big fight.

ALLEN: Not much is known about how pythons became established in Florida, except that they've been here now for about three decades. In this year's competition, a $10,000 top prize will go to the hunter who brings in the most pythons.

Mike Kirkland, who manages the Python Elimination Program for the South Florida Water Management District, says eliminating them from the environment may no longer be possible.

MIKE KIRKLAND: But I'm very optimistic that we are going to be able to reduce the population enough so that our native wildlife can return.

ALLEN: A major question still not answered about pythons is, how many are there in Florida? They're very difficult to spot in the wild, and most of the several thousand square miles of the Everglades is inaccessible except by airboat. Kirkland says human detection and removal has been the most effective way to combat pythons. In some areas near Everglades National Park, rabbits, possums and other small mammals that had been wiped out by the snakes have begun to return.

At the check station, Joaquin Vila has just brought in his catch - another python hatchling. Vila says at least in areas where they can get access, he believes he and other hunters are putting a dent in the python population.

JOAQUIN VILA: The other day we were talking about out here that we saw about eight deer. And some of the other guys that have been out here - they're like, man, I haven't seen that many in a while. So I think it is making a difference.

ALLEN: Between contractors, novice hunters and the state-sponsored competition, more than 17,000 pythons have been removed over the last 20 years. That could be good news if we had some idea how many pythons were still out there.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.