Python hunt in Everglades
Interview with a reptile breeder/biologist.
EVERGLADES — Seven men with snake hooks and pocket knives will not cure the problem of pythons in the Everglades, but that doesn’t stop Shawn Heflick from trying.
Heflick, a reptile breeder from Palm Bay, waded through knee-high swamp water in the middle of the Everglades on Saturday, hoping to add another notch to his belt of python kills.
“They can’t hear anything,” Heflick yells to his son from a patch of bug-infested shrubs. “They can only feel vibrations, so holler if you see anything.”
Heflick’s 14-year-old son, Thorne, flat on his belly with his head upside down peering underneath a dock, waves his hand in the air in acknowledgment.
No sign of pythons yet, but it’s early and this pair is just getting started.
Heflick, president of the Central Florida Herpetological Society, is one of seven reptile experts licensed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to hunt Burmese pythons and other exotic wildlife on state-managed lands south of Lake Okeechobee.
State officials started the three-month trial program in hopes of controlling the spread of pythons, which prey on native Florida mammals, birds and reptiles. The state estimates tens of thousands of the snakes live in South Florida.
But nine days into the program, it’s off to a slow start with only one reported python killed and that was by Heflick after a press conference in the Everglades on the first day the permits were issued.
Heflick didn’t get as lucky Saturday. After three hours of searching, stormy weather cut the hunting party’s time short and the two returned with nothing to show.
Heflick’s not the only one having a hard time locating the powerful constrictors, which can grow to 26 feet and 200 pounds.
“I’ve been out three times this week and haven’t found anything,” permit holder Michael Cole said. “I’m just not seeing anything. I’m not even seeing signs of anything.”
Cole, a reptile breeder in Haines City in Central Florida, said the other hunters have reported similar findings: nothing.
On Saturday, an airboat guide took Heflick and his son to four islands in the Everglades, the perfect spot for the semi-aquatic snakes.
Prepared to wrestle a python with his bare hands, Heflick treks through the muddy islands -- alert and ready to pounce.
“I’ll just grab it behind the head with my bare hands,” Heflick said. “That’s the way I prefer to do it.”
A pocket knife plays a small role in the plan, to kill the snake instantly with one quick jab behind the base of its head.
He talks continuously about the nature of pythons, taking his eyes off the ground only to check the occasional tree limb.
The first sight of lightning sends Heflick back to the airboat. One more island to try before the storms force them to leave.
The airboat captain suggests taking a shortcut to avoid the chances of getting stuck in the rain. They all agree.
The airboat moves through the vegetation, making its own path, taking down stems of saw grass with every turn.
They stop at a large, rundown campsite. Three structures and several headstones under the shade of a tree are the only signs that the island was once occupied. The graves are of former owners who didn’t want to be separated from their secluded home.
Heflick doesn’t rush this time. Carefully stepping along the bank, he looks at every blade of grass. He knows this is his last chance for success today.
Still no luck and the thunder rumbles louder by the minute.
“I guess that’s it,” Heflick said. “Let’s head out.”
Heflick and Cole agreed that the summer heat wasn’t making it easy to find the pythons, which retreat to cooler areas that are usually out of sight. The hunters said October, the last month of the trial program, should be much more successful. They expect the cooler weather to bring the snakes toward the roads and open spaces, looking for sun and warmth.
These trial permits are the first step in the Conservation Commission’s plan to eradicate the snakes and protect native wildlife throughout the Everglades.
If the program is successful, the Conservation Commission will consider expanding it so that anyone who holds a reptile-of-concern license can apply for a similar permit. The state licenses are required by anyone who owns a reptile that has the potential to affect the environment, such as a python or Nile monitor.
The seven permit holders in the trial program were hand-picked by the Conservation Commission.
The temporary permits will expire Oct. 31. Details about the permanent program will not be finalized until the effectiveness of the trial program can be assessed. Conservation Commission staff members said they hope to begin the new program Jan. 1.
The hunters are required to collect data from each snake, including GPS coordinates, size, weight and stomach contents. The snakes must be killed on site and can be sold by the hunters for profit.
The Conservation Commission doesn’t pay the hunters a bounty or reimbursement for any expenses, so a bounty will only be collected if the hunter is able to sell the skin or meat of the snakes.
However, trying to find a market for the product could take some work since the business of python harvesting is so new to the state.
That’s OK with Heflick and Cole, who said they aren’t in it for the money.
But the success of a permanent program could depend on a reliable way to hunt the snakes and a market for the skins and meat.
Heflick said he doesn’t see the trial program as a solution to the problem, but as a way to gather research and information to help combat the snakes.
He said he expects a full program with more hunters will be more successful.