“The python weighed 31 pounds, the fawn weighed 35,” he said. Kimmel also feeds the meat to feral hogs at his ranch. Like other apex predators, pythons accumulate toxins in their tissues from what they eat, and a sample can suggest the level of mercury contamination in the environment. Then he removed the eggs, which were about the size of chicken eggs, and leathery. Removing the females with their eggs—sometimes as many as 60 or even 100-plus eggs per female—is the population-controlling goal. The vines dangled and ripped at us. In Naples, Bartoszek’s program is mostly privately funded, high-tech and staffed by three people. It is now illegal to import or purchase Burmese pythons in Florida. The spurs of males are longer than those of females and provide a quick means of identifying the sex. The small, beadlike eyes were watching, steadily. OCHOPEE, Fla. — Hunters in the Big Cypress National Preserve, near the Florida Everglades, caught a 17-foot long, 140 pound female python, the preserve said Friday afternoon. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida is a nonprofit scientific organization that has received funding from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Naples Zoo Conservation Fund and private donors. Officials with Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) say the 2013 Python Challenge is meant to raise awareness about the invasive species. It received 1,000 applications in four days. Kalil estimates she’s caught 300 pythons, mostly as part of the water management district’s 3-year-old program that pays hunters minimum wage up … Frank Mazzotti, a scientist who has been studying them for more than a decade, told me about a time when he and his colleagues caught a python, attached a radio transmitter for research purposes, and released it. Estimates run from 10,000 to perhaps hundreds of thousands. Cynthia Downer and Jonathan Lopez came across one on September 22 at Big Cypress National Preserve in Ochopee, Florida -- and they caught it. No female could be found, nor could Malcolm, the other sentinel nearby. Larger animals are seized wherever is convenient, and crushed and strangled in the coils before and during swallowing. Under the current political dispensation more land has been opened to development, more environment-protecting regulations relaxed, more funds cut. Getting access to state and federal lands, acreage owned by private developers, and dirt tracks through horizon-spanning vegetable farms requires diplomacy, which is a big part of Bartoszek’s job. Nature is a continuity. Bartoszek brought out a plastic container of hoof cores from white-tailed deer he had found in pythons. That’s how almost all our pythons are caught—hunters driving the levees. Professional hunters can make a significant profit from their efforts, earning a bounty of several hundred dollars from the state for each snake, then turning them into python skin goods such as boots, handbags and purses for sale. The Everglades ecosystem is about 5,000 square miles. Its wilder parts don’t always stop at the edge of the patio; and the possibility that we might step out the back door and encounter a 17-foot-long apex predator who, to speak plainly, could eat us (pythons have eaten people in other parts of the world), shows poor stewardship, at best. So, leaving Kirkland in the tree, we bushwhacked back out. Bartoszek has single-handedly caught Burmese pythons that are two and three times as long as he is tall. But snakes aren’t crazy about people, either. Its prominent nostrils resemble retractable headlights; heat-sensing receptors below them enable it to key in on the body temperatures of its mostly warmblooded prey. They do well in heat, and 2015 and 2017 were the first- and second-hottest years in Florida history. Back in 2013 and again in 2016, the state ran a program called the Python Challenge, which channeled an expressed public wish to help catch pythons. “And that’s Malcolm,” he said. Stretching for more than 50 miles east to west, the Everglades includes saw grass prairie, pine tree-covered ground, small limestone islands, cypress swamps, and mangrove forests along the ocean. Slowly I approached his head. And we caught all of them within 55 square miles around Naples. Maybe a storm washed them out of a swamp next to the Gulf. Not so with sentinel snakes, who are left to identify more targets. Scientists who work with snakes get tired of people who say how much they hate them. From Naples, Ian Bartoszek kept sending me photos of the snakes his team was catching. For proof, check out the videos of pythons on YouTube, especially the ones of pythons fighting alligators. Bartoszek held up a radio antenna shaped like a horizontal football goal post and listened for beeps. We kept hunting until past midnight, venturing into spookier country south of Highway 41, among moss-hung trees and strange limestone outcroppings. She described the challenges of working in the Everglades. Burmese pythons breed between December and March, with February the height of the season. The FWC is encouraging the public to help manage this nonnative constrictor. Given the extremely stretchy cartilage joint connecting their jaws to their heads and their ability to extend their windpipe, snorkel-like, outside their mouths, so they can breathe while their mouths are entirely occupied with swallowing—that’s a lot of animals. A research study in 2012 found a massive decline in the population of native Everglades mammals coincided with a proliferation in python numbers. The One morning in early February the three of them led me into the swamps of greater Naples. In the confusion of leaves and branches, sunlight and shadow, I could hardly make him out. “We’ve seen pythons so fat that they wobble as they go along the ground,” Easterling said. “That’s Kirkland,” Bartoszek said, studying the receiver’s dial as the first beeps got louder. According to universally known cop lore, undercover police are arrested with the criminals they’ve been investigating, so as not to blow their cover. The hunters and scientists who search for pythons across South Florida are heroes because they spend thousands of hours truly looking at those details, with mindfulness and quickness of eye. Burrowing owls flared up from the levee sides and flew off, calling. Brazilian peppertrees, an invader that is among Florida’s most damaging flora, also impeded us; they had been sprayed in an attempt to get rid of them, and thorny vines had taken over their dead branches. The side of her mouth, she laid it outstretched in some.... 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