MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. -- The Florida Everglades is home to all types of unique, native animals. Alligators, birds, fish and snakes. But one type of snake in particular has worn out its welcome. The Burmese Python doesn't belong in the Everglades but it's slithered its way into the fragile ecosystem, camouflaging itself perfectly to fit in with the environment.
The Burmese Python is actually native to Southeast Asia but after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, many believe people who had pythons as pets, lost them in the storm and they ended up in the Everglades. Combine that with people who didn't want the snakes as pets any longer and released them into the wild and it has become a python problem. The python population has done nothing but grow since then with no real way to stop it.
Since 2010, Edward Mercer has held a license to hunt pythons in the state of Florida.
"The pythons are going to come out and they're going to lay right along this edge to basically bask in the sun. Pythons are ectodermic and they don't produce body heat," said Mercer, Florida Burmese Python Hunter.
His goal is to help remove pythons from the Everglades but finding them is not as easy as it looks. We spent two days hunting pythons with Mercer, searching and scouring canal banks in the Everglades for a snake that doesn't have many predators.
"We have an ecosystem here thats not prepared to handle them. They can't, there is nothing here that is going to help people remove them," said Mercer.
WINK News cameras did catch other snakes like the native Everglades Racer and alligators but day one was a bust for the python.
"I believe that its safe to say that theres more than tens of thousands of them in the Everglades. Is there 100,000? I don't know that I could really say that but I agree for sure there are tens of thousands of pythons out there," said Mercer.
At the University of Florida in Gainesville, Dr. Kenneth Krysko has studies and worked with the Burmese Python invasion for nearly 20 years.
"Whoever did release these things illegally, had no idea of what the potential harm could be. These things didn't float over here from Myanmar. Since then, populations have just exploded and are growing exponentially," said Krysko.
Scientists have tracked the python from the Everglades north to Lake Okeechobee. The snakes are living for years because they eat just about everything in sight. The non-native snake is taking a toll on animals native to Florida.
"Its been preying upon many birds, mammals, even reptiles and many of which are protected species. So those populations are apparently starting to decline. It is very important that has ecologists or citizens, we try to remove all of these animals," said Krysko.
On day two of our python hunt, we returned to the Everglades. A week passed since our first hunt. Mercer said a cold snap can help bring pythons out of hiding and onto the canal banks when the sun is up and the temperature is somewhere between 68 and 72 degrees.
"In order for them to have digestion function or just their normal body they have to have heat," said Mercer.
But finding the elusive python can be tricky. Four hours in after driving canal bank after canal bank and thinking about calling it a day, Mercer spotted a python in the bushes.
"All right so there is a python sitting right here. We're going to jump out and grab it," said Mercer.
To capture a python, Mercer grabbed the snake by the tail. The goal is to not have the python tie itself up into the bushes or escape into the canal. Before he captured it, Mercer made sure the snake is clear of any brush.
Getting the python population down is key because with the snake already on the move to the north, other animals are at risk.
"As soon as they run out of things in the Everglades, they're going to start moving into the rural areas. Not looking for people but feral cats, feral dogs, anything they can get," said Mercer.
The python Mercer caught during our shoot was about 7 feet, 9 inches long and weighed about 15 pounds. It was his 13th python capture of 2012.
If you're wondering what happens to the pythons, if Mercer captures them inside Everglades National Park, the non-poisonous snake is turned over to a research center before leaving the park. Pythons caught on wildlife management land get taken to Florida Wildlife Commission Center drop boxes and are then taken to a research center. Hunters are not allowed to shoot the snakes, only capture them by hand.
To learn more, visit Mercer's website http://burmesepythonhunter.blogspot.com/