Nature is cruel sometimes.
Burmese python head. Image: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Most biologists who study snakes for a living spend their entire careers getting ordinary people to care about imperiled species that aren't cute and cuddly and sometimes named Cecil. Part of their job description is trying to sway public opinion of these often vilified reptiles using science and outreach.
So when I learned that some of them are currently gearing up for an event that's seemingly organized around killing snakes, I was intrigued. The 2016 Python Challenge, which starts this week and lasts for an entire month, is a massive conservation event that also prominently features a Burmese python removal (i.e. euthanization) competition.
Burmese pythons are one of the largest species of snake on Earth, capable of reaching upwards of 20 feet in their native southeast Asia. Biologists first determined the non-native snake had established itself in south Florida's marshlands around 16 years ago in Everglades National Park—a critical sanctuary for many threatened and endangered species. Pythons are adept hunters, and without any other animals preying on them, their populations in Florida have been allowed to skyrocket.
Snakes in general are subject to hyperbole and fearmongering, and Florida's python problem is no different. While these invasives have been called everything from "the stuff of nightmares" to "man-eating super snakes" by the formerly educational Discovery Channel (who I hear is also on site for the Python Challenge), the only things that really need to be scared of them are native wildlife.
At first glance, Florida's Python Challenge is an open call for biologists and local residents to find and euthanize as many of these invasive Burmese pythons as possible (there will be prizes!). At its core, however, the challenge is a hands-on, crash course on the importance of native wildlife and how invasive species endanger them.
"The event is mostly for outreach," Dr. Christina Romagosa, assistant professor in wildlife ecology at University of Florida, told me. Event organizers are hoping to drum up awareness about native and non-native species, and educate exotic pet owners about the consequences of releasing their animals into the wild.
But whether or not the Python Challenge wants to be, it's also a truly wild approach to getting people acquainted with one of the most controversial ways that humans exercise control over their environments: culling.
Animal culling—the controlled killing of a species in order to manage its population in a designated area—will never not be a touchy subject, even among biologists. Culling has long been an effective wildlife management tool, but in the last few years has stormed into mainstream dialogue due to its use on charismatic species like the American mustang, European badger, and feral cats. Oh, and remember Marius?
As wilderness areas like Florida's everglades become even more fragmented due to climate change, human development, and natural resource extraction, culling is increasingly relied upon to protect the native species and ecosystems that are still holding on.
But not everyone is on board. Animal rights groups are culling's most vocal critics, and oppose the practice on the basis that it's inhumane, unnecessary, and can be ineffective.
At the center of the culling debate lies the difference between wildlife conservation and animal rights. "Conservation is interested in populations and serving native ecosystems, while animal rights is concerned with lives of individual animals," explained Dr. David Steen, ecologist and assistant research professor at Auburn University.
When animals are culled for ecological reasons (that is, not for bloodsport), the agencies that prescribe it are supposed to ensure that euthanasia techniques are humane and result in no suffering. Still, there are some people who have abused culling to get away with brutal and illegal hunting sprees, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a scientist who thinks that's an acceptable tradeoff.
Culling also doesn't have a perfect track record when it comes to its effectiveness. In Western Australia, for example, government officials launched a terribly misguided great white shark killing campaign that resulted in the death of dozens of the wrong shark species, much to the ire of activists and scientists alike.
But in the case of Florida's Burmese python, there doesn't seem to be any other viable option.
"No tool exists or is likely to exist in the next five years that would result in the eradication of pythons," Dr. Bob Reed, research biologist for the USGS, told me.
This isn't that surprising when you learn just how hard it is to find these elusive snakes. According to Dr. Romagosa, the detection probability for Burmese pythons is less than one percent. Around 80 to 90 percent of the habitat they occupy is inaccessible by humans, and a single female can produce nearly a hundred young.
There has been some success with snake-sniffing dogs, baited traps, and a very cool detection method called "environmental DNA," but without anyone willing to rehome these captured giant snakes, humane euthanasia still ends up being the path of least suffering.
Dr. Steen is one of this year's Python Challenge participants and admits the overall Burmese python harvest won't make much of a dent in their Florida population. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, only 68 snakes were removed during the last challenge in 2013.
While the event didn't do much to thin the python population, he added, it was still "a great opportunity to reach a lot of people who might not be thinking about invasive species."
Burmese pythons will eat a wide array of mammals and birds, and biologists are particularly concerned about their predation on the federally endangered Key Largo woodrat. The pythons also compete for prey with other native snakes and apex predators like the Florida panther. Like most invasive species, these snakes are putting pressure on an already delicate ecosystem.
The introduction and spread of Burmese pythons in Florida is unequivocally attributed to the exotic pet trade, which imported them into the US before it became illegal. Valued and bred for their attractive markings and supposed docility, these snakes can be easily purchased at pet shops and reptile trade shows.
After realizing they now have a human-size predator on their hands, many people will illegally release their pet pythons into the wild.
First-time snake owners often buy them as small hatchlings and, after a year or so, find themselves with 8-foot-long juveniles. After realizing they now have a human-size predator on their hands, many people will illegally release their pet pythons into the wild. The usual outcome for most exotic animals released into the wild is to "die a lonely death by themselves," said Dr. Steen. "However, every once in awhile, one really takes off."
Biologists' promotion of the Burmese python cull in a culture where snakes are so widely vilified is certainly an interesting dichotomy. One one hand, scientists are understandably compelled to defend a very legitimate and often effective population management tool. On the other, a simple miscommunication could potentially empower people to kill any and all snakes they come across.
Dr. Reed doesn't think the Python Challenge will cause the public to go on a snake-hunting spree, however. If anything, he feels the event will educate people about the correct protocol for dealing with a potentially dangerous invasive species. "The typical person who sees a python isn't going to approach it, but they might be more inclined to report it, and that's great." (By the way, if you do see one, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a set of detailed instructions on what to do.)
Of the three biologists I spoke to, all of them told me they found absolutely no pleasure in the killing invasive species, but understand that it's sometimes necessary to keep ecosystems alive and healthy.
In the words of Dr. Reed, "Just because we're trying to get rid of Burmese pythons doesn't mean we think snakes are bad."
Correction: This story originally said that Christina Romagosa is an assistant professor at Auburn University. Romagosa is an assistant professor at University of Florida.