Invasive pythons moving closer to Central Florida after wreaking havoc on South Florida ecosystem

The 10th Annual Python Challenge recently took place in the Florida Everglades. That’s the event where snake hunters from across the world hunt for these invasive snakes to try and eradicate them before they can do more damage to the sensitive ecosystem in South Florida.  

This year’s winner was Paul Hobbs from Tennessee, who caught 20 pythons and took home the $10,000 grand prize.  This year, more than 1,000 hunters took part in the event and caught 209 Burmese Pythons. More than 1,000 snakes have now been caught during the hunts, but there is a long way to go.

The number of snakes caught this year is down from previous years, which may sound like a good thing, but it may be the opposite.  A lack of snakes in the southern tip of Florida likely means these pythons are moving north looking for food after devouring in their path. 

Despite what many people think, these snakes can survive in cooler weather because they simply go underground until it warms again. So, a crew from FOX 35 went along for the hunt this year to see what it’s like to take part in this thrilling expedition and what it’s really like in the Florida Everglades at this point. 

The first thing our crews noticed was the lack of animals.  Other than numerous alligators, we saw practically no other animals.  No deer, no raccoons, no squirrels.  It became apparent how bad the problem was when we came upon a small trash heap left behind by a fisherman on a remote trail.   

Food had been left behind for what appeared to be several days, and nothing had eaten the leftovers.  That simply means that the snakes have even eaten all the scavengers, like rats, that would normally take care of food left behind.

The people most impacted by the Burmese Pythons are likely the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians.  They have lived off the land in the Everglades for decades, but their way of life is now in jeopardy.  Craig van der Heiden, the Wildlife Director for the Miccosukee Tribe.  He says that this hunt is personal for them.  

"A part of their livelihood is to protect the Everglades. And so, the pythons are creating havoc on the ecosystem, and they are a part of the ecosystem." Van der Heiden points out that the laws that govern the tribe are even in question.  "Even within their constitution," van der Heiden says, "it's written that they have to protect the Everglades."

In fact, the Miccosukee Tribe has never spoken to the media about the pythons until our interview, partly because it’s taboo for them to speak about the snakes.  But we were allowed to speak with 15-year-old Hector Tigertail, who has committed his life to fixing this problem.  

"Our culture depends wholly on the animals and land. So, what these pythons are doing is killing all of our sacred animals, from our deer, alligators, and well, our livelihoods, honestly," says Tigertail.  

To battle this threat, the Tribe is training dogs to try and hunt down the pythons.  Their search dog named Shato, is now tracking down the snakes in places where humans could never find them.  

"And so, with the use of the dog, the Miccosukee has have found the biggest python that's been caught," says van der Heiden.  

That snake was 20 feet long.  Shato is also adept at finding females, which is the ultimate find because they can carry up to 100 eggs. That means finding one pregnant python is the equivalent of catching 100 snakes at once.  

Everyone admits that this fight will take decades and will likely require some sort of new technology to track down the pythons.  But the Miccosukee Tribe says they don’t have a choice because their way of life is now in danger. 

"Without the land or any animals, honestly, we wouldn't have a tribe, Tigertail says. "We want to have stories to tell.  Without this, I wouldn't really have a purpose beyond Earth."