June 1, 2023

MUI Daily News

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In Florida, hunting Burmese pythons helps the environment as well as mental health.

Posted on Monday, August 22, 2022 at 08:23

Enrique Colon may fear yellow crickets, but he doesn’t hesitate to dig into the vegetation of the Everglades to hunt Burmese pythons, an invasive species that has been destroying the wetland’s ecosystem for years.

When he’s not curating cultural events in Miami, the 34-year-old Mr. Callan pursues these nocturnal reptiles from Southeast Asia as a professional hunter.

Employed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Agency (FWC), he helps reduce the number of these snakes in the state by tens of thousands, experts say.

At night, Enrique Colon travels miles on sidewalks and gravel paths. He drives slowly through his flashlight observing the grass, the roots of trees, the banks of canals and the glimmering eyes of crocodiles here and there.

It costs: 13 dollars an hour and one companion per python, 50 dollars for a python measuring up to 1.2 meters and 25 dollars more for each additional 30 cm.

On this August evening, Mr. Callan is highly motivated because the FWC python hunting competition has 800 participants over 10 days.

A reward of $2,500 is awarded to the person who finds and kills the most pythons in each category: professionals and amateurs.

Enrique Colon wants to earn this money to celebrate the recent birth of his son Jesus.

– “Incredible Predators” –

Burmese pythons were introduced to the region as pets at the end of the last century.

When released into the Everglades in the 1970s, they reproduced rapidly, had no predators to hunt them, and became a threat to this fragile wetland ecosystem.

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These snakes feed on other reptiles, birds and mammals such as raccoons and white-tailed deer.

“They are incredible hunters,” said Mr. Callan wonders.

Those in the Everglades average 6 to 9 feet long, but finding them at night in this 607,000-hectare area is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

After two fruitless nights, Enrique Colon, thanks to his trained eye and his patience, is a shadow on the side of the road. Within seconds, he jumps out of his van, runs over and throws at a baby python.

He grabs the back of its head to keep it from biting and observes it with satisfaction before placing it in a canvas bag. He will then kill him with an air rifle.

A few kilometers further on, a large python slithers across the asphalt. Enrique Colon leaves his vehicle again, but this time the snake escapes him and hides in the grass, leaving behind a strong musk scent. A defense mechanism.

– “In peace” –

Mr. Callan completed a brief online training course before tracking these reptiles.

But he says he’s learned it all thanks to Tom Rahil, 65, whose association helps Swamp Apes players fight their traumatic memories… hunting pythons.

For several hours, Rahm Levinson, an American veteran of the war in Iraq, hunts snakes along with Tom Rahil and Enrique Cullen.

“It helps me deal with a lot of things at home,” says Mr Levinson, 41, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. “I can’t sleep, and it’s useful and beneficial for one to go out at midnight or two to hunt pythons.”

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“Sometimes, when my feet are up to my knees in the swamp, I feel at peace,” said Mr. Callan agrees.

The hunter takes pride in participating in efforts to eradicate more than 17,000 pythons since 2000, spending time in the wild.

“One of the best things I get from it is the beauty around me,” she says. “If you look closely, if you open your eyes and observe, you will see a lot of magic here.”