Armed with poking sticks and guns, Miamians Pablo Martinez, brother Esteban and buddy Giovanni Villadoniga beat the bushes at Rotenberger Wildlife Management Area in southwestern Palm Beach County Saturday afternoon, searching for Burmese pythons.
If we see one, were just gonna shoot it, Pablo said. I dont see the point of grabbing one. Were all a bunch of rookies, a group of guys hanging out. Were doing it for the fun but hey, if were helping out, thats cool, too.
The three are among 837 hunters registered for the 2013 Python Challenge a month-long, South Florida contest awarding cash prizes.
Many of the hunters at a Saturday kickoff event at the University of Florida Research and Education Center in Davie were raring to go. But what some didnt realize is that finding a Burmese python sunning on a levee or a tree island in the vast expanse of the Everglades even a snake 17 feet long is like locating a toothpick in a stack of hay.
Theres pythons everywhere in the Everglades, but the chances of seeing them are slim, said wildlife biologist Joe Wasilewski of Homestead. A 13-foot python, you might only see two to three inches of it.
Wasilewski, 60, is one of 88 snake hunters licensed by the state to remove Burmese pythons and other exotic reptiles from Everglades National Park and South Florida Water Management District lands. He said the problem of exotic reptiles is nothing new; he has been removing pets dumped in the park by irresponsible owners since the 1980s.
A personal best
His personal-record catch is one that measured just over 16 feet. But Wasilewski said the python problem has grown worse in the past decade, and he believes its due to a Quonset hut full of the snakes being blown into the Everglades by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They survived and reproduced, he figures.
If you look at a logarithmic scale, you are talking tens of thousands of them, the biologist said.
Wasilewski is not a competitor in the Python Challenge. He says he may help staff one of the check stations as hunters bring snakes out of the Glades.
However, Wasilewski and son Nick, 31, successfully demonstrated their python-catching prowess near the C-110 canal in South Miami-Dade on Friday, the day before the big hunt.
They walked the long levee at mid-morning with Michiko Squires, a wildlife technician at University of Florida, armed only with a catch bag and a metal cane with a curved handle that they never used.
This time of year, sunny mornings after cool evenings is the ideal time for the pythons to come out, the elder Wasilewski said.
The three walked briskly, but not so quickly that they couldnt scan both sides of the levee. About 15 minutes after they parked their truck, Nick sprang into a patch of sawgrass beside the canal and jumped on an 81/2-foot male Burmese python. He seized the writhing reptile by the head and tail, and he and his dad stuffed it into Joes backpack. The whole thing was over in seconds, without injury to man or snake.
In my opinion, it was out looking for love, Joe said of the mature male.
Nick who has captured plenty of reptiles, but never a Burmese python was elated.
I heard the bushes moving a sound like a snake in the grass to be honest with you, he said. Then I just jumped on it.
The Wasilewskis and Squires continued their search along the levee, planning to cover both sides of the canal. The elder snake hunter was asked for some helpful hints for the many newbies who will be competing in the Python Challenge.