17-foot Burmese Python Caught in South Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, July 31, 2009 (ENS) – A Burmese python measuring 17 feet in length was caught and destroyed on private property in Okeechobee County Thursday afternoon. Captured on the grounds of the Okeechobee Veterinary Hospital, the male snake weighed 207 pounds, and measured 26 inches in diameter.

The enormous exotic snake was caught under a new permitting program begun earlier this month by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at the request of Governor Charlie Crist.

The program to curb the spread of Burmese pythons in southern Florida is being carried out by a limited number of qualified herpetology experts who are willing to volunteer their time and efforts. Pythons captured under the permits are euthanized.

Staff the Okeechobee Veterinary Hospital hold the python that was caught on the facility’s property. July 30, 2009. (Photo courtesy FWC)

Burmese pythons are native to Southeast Asia and are some of the largest snakes in the world, reaching lengths of up to 23 feet and weights of 200 pounds.

As a Reptile of Concern, Burmese pythons must be licensed by FWC’s Captive Wildlife Section and implanted with a microchip to be kept as a pet. Officers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, FWC, scanned the python caught on Thursday but did not find a microchip.

“The capture of this large python shows us how well these snakes can thrive in the wild and create a dangerous situation after illegal release or escape,” said FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto.

“It also illustrates why the FWC is partnering with other agencies to implement python control measures in South Florida,” Barreto said. “We will continue to push for additional measures to control the spread of Burmese pythons in the Everglades where they are reproducing in large numbers.”

In response to the increase of Burmese pythons in the Everglades ecosystem, Governor Crist requested that Barreto and the FWC take action to stop the spread of the huge exotic pythons onto state lands.

“It is important that we take action now to ensure a safe and healthy future for Florida’s native wildlife and habitats in the Everglades,” said Governor Crist on July 15.

“We appreciate the Governor’s attention to this matter, and will act with diligence to remove this harmful species from impacted state lands,” said FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto.

On July 17, the FWC launched its permit program, allowing reptile experts to capture and euthanize Burmese pythons on state-managed lands around the Everglades.

Permit-holders are collecting basic data – location, approximate size, weight, and stomach contents – on the captured snakes. Data collected will help the FWC and its partners develop better methods of controlling exotic species. The program will extend through the fall and winter months, at which point it will be reviewed for its effectiveness.

To date, seven permits have been issued and five pythons have been captured. Several more permits will be issued in the coming weeks. The program continues until October 31, at which time the FWC will analyze the data and determine if the program should be extended or expanded.

Barreto says the permitting program could lead to a bounty system for controlling this invasive, exotic species.

“We hope this program also will demonstrate that a bounty system utilizing volunteer efforts and capitalizing on the value of the meat and hides from pythons can provide a cost effective solution that can be readily applied in places where Burmese pythons have the strongest foothold, including Everglades National Park,” Barreto said.

Barreto says the FWC is working in partnership with the South Florida Water Management District and in consultation with its federal partners in the Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.

To achieve full success in controlling Burmese pythons, he said, these types of efforts will need to be expanded onto federally-managed lands in the Everglades.

The FWC worked with the Florida Legislature and the reptile industry to establish and implement tighter restrictions in 2007 to help prevent the escape or release of these exotic species. Now Burmese python owners are required to pay an annual $100 license and adhere to mandatory caging requirements. Releasing any exotic wildlife in Florida is a first-degree misdemeanor with a penalty of up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

In addition, Burmese pythons more than two inches in diameter must be implanted with a microchip that identifies the origin of each animal. This rule applies to all Reptiles of Concern, which include Burmese pythons, Indian pythons, reticulated pythons, African rock pythons, amethystine or scrub pythons, and green anacondas. It is unlawful to allow such snakes to escape or to release them into the wild.

Burmese pythons were first reported as established in Everglades National Park in the year 2000, based in part on specimens collected on the Main Park Road in the mid-1990s. Since then, the number of Burmese pythons captured or found dead in and around the park has soared.

From 2002 to 2005, 201 pythons were captured and removed or found dead. In 2006-2007 alone, that number more than doubled to 418. These totals include pythons that were killed by farm machinery or removed after encounters with workers during water management and ecological restoration projects.

Although the size of the wild population is not known, it has been estimated to number in the thousands.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, some 99,000 Burmese pythons were imported to the United States between 1996 and 2006.

Of particular concern is the spread of pythons to biologically vulnerable areas such as the Florida Keys, according to a 2008 University of Florida study. Because Burmese pythons are excellent swimmers and can travel long distances in water, the many creeks and canals separating the Keys should not inhibit python movement, the researchers warn.

Pythons have already been found on Key Largo, where dietary analysis established that the endangered Key Largo woodrat is among their prey. Burmese pythons are known to frequent wading bird colonies in their native range and, in South Florida, two wading bird species of special concern, the limpkin and white ibis are known python prey.

Over the years, the FWC has made it a priority to work with owners of exotic pets by hosting annual pet amnesty days around the state. These events allow owners of exotic pets to turn in their animals for free, no questions asked.

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