MIAMI — When Florida issued a call for python hunters, applications came in from near and very, very far — Iran, for instance, where one man sees a chance to fulfill his childhood dream.
Mohammad Asghari is one of 2,600 applicants worldwide hoping to become a “python removal agent” with the South Florida Water Management District, an effort that aims to control the state’s booming Burmese python infestation. The python elimination program tripled its budget earlier this year to approximately $1 million, expanded to five counties and will double its contracted hunters to 50.
Asghari spent his youth catching vipers in the mountains by his home in Tehran. He kept the venomous snakes in a plastic box and enjoyed playing with them.
“My parents always opposed this,” said Asghari, 38.
Though Asghari currently works as an electrical engineer in Iran, his real passion is snakes — “the most beautiful animal,” he said. He owns more than 70, including dozens of Boa constrictors and Burmese pythons, many of which he bought illegally through the black market. He posts the pets on his Instagram, @Iran.Snake and occasionally sells them for a 15% mark-up.
Asghari, who communicated with the Miami Herald on WhatsApp, believes he would be an excellent python removal agent because he is very familiar with Burmese pythons.
“They can’t hurt me at all,” he said. “I fully understand their behavior.”
Statistically, it is easier to get into Harvard than to become a python removal agent. But the job doesn’t pay much: $15 an hour on a one-year contract with no health care benefits.
There are, however, bonuses for each snake, and some perks that would likely appeal to many of the people applying, including an access key to “exclusive gated areas” in nature preserves, a special app to log their work on their phone and a badge. They can hunt on state lands anywhere south of Lake Okeechobee.
The job also comes with “the excitement of finding pythons,” said Rory Feeney, land resources bureau chief for the South Florida Water Management District. Feeney is tasked with reviewing applications that have poured in since the expansion was announced in August. He supplied The Herald with a sample of some of the international applicants. Feeney said he is keeping an open mind but focusing on locals.
“There are a lot of qualified individuals out there,” said Feeney. “I look for people who have regional experience, who know the Everglades, who care about the Everglades.”
The python removal agent application had a few restrictions for candidates. They had to be over 18, sign a waiver of liability and never have been convicted of a felony. A space for additional comments gave applicants an opportunity to make an impression and stand out.
One Canadian man noted in his that he had “trapped bears.”
Another, from Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, admitted he had no experience hunting pythons but expressed enthusiasm to learn: “I am willing to do the job, I could email my résumé if needed.”
Haider Hussain, a retiree from Alberta, Canada, who also applied, told The Herald that he had developed a “cost-effective trapping method” after nine months of research. He said it would lure pythons in as they searched for food but declined to offer more information “because the Chinese are listening” and the design might be stolen before he could patent it. He said the trap would be a more efficient process than hunting in the Everglades.
“Twenty guys running around 10,000 square kilometers, how the hell are they going to catch anything?” said Hussain, 69, a former banker. “(The python) should be trapped rather than pursued.”
People running around the Everglades have actually been the most effective way to catch pythons, according to a September presentation from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which also runs its own python hunting program. The data shows a marked increase of hundreds more python removals per year since the Python Elimination Program began in 2017 in Miami-Dade County.
The invasive species has run — slithered — rampant in the Everglades since the 1960s, as the exotic pets escaped or were released into the wild. Hurricane Andrew destroyed a python breeding facility in 1992, further accelerating the python problem.
Catching pythons is not easy, said Tom Rahill, 62, an IT administrator by day and an accomplished python removal agent by night. He has captured more than 700 pythons since he started keeping track in 2008, when he began working as a volunteer. For 10 years, he has brought veterans on python hunts through his organization, Swamp Apes.
Rahill describes wrangling with full-grown Burmese pythons, which can reach 17 feet long, as “a fight for life.” Rahill never kills his prey, but brings each snake in alive. The key, he said, is to control their head.
There are two seasons for python hunting, Rahill said. He goes cruising at night from May through November during the “wet season” with his car’s bright lights on, scanning for snakes in the undergrowth. In the dry season, for the rest of the year, he ventures out after several cold nights when the snakes like to emerge to bask, he said.
A python’s first instinct is to stay still or creep away, but when that doesn’t work the snake will hiss, coil, lunge, bite, defecate, and even “throw elbows” upon contact as Rahill puts it, by trying to constrict the hunter’s limbs. But a python has only one lung and it has to expand and contract its body to power that lung. The human has the biological advantage.
“You can wear them out,” Rahill said. “We can outlast the python.”
(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
The problem is sometimes a big python will get a stubborn grip on a tree. That’s when Rahill brings out his “beast belt,” an invention he pioneered to handle these situations. He wraps the canvas belt around the python near its lungs and tightens the belt, distracting the snake which feels it is being bitten there and will loosen up, Rahill explained.
“You are effectively constricting the constrictors,” he said.
Even then, the snake won’t go quietly — pythons have four rows of razor sharp back curving teeth that Rahill has felt sink into his flesh on numerous occasions.
“I think I still have python teeth in my leg,” he said, referring to a recent encounter with a 17-footer.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM)
By freeing South Florida from pythons, hunters are protecting the rest of the ecosystem.
“The small mammal population in and around Everglades National Park has been decimated,” Feeney said. In parts of the Everglades there has been more than a 90% decrease in small mammal populations: raccoons, possums, marsh rabbits, light tailed deer have all been casualties to the appetite of the python. Birds and gators have not been spared either.
New technologies and provisions have been implemented to bolster the campaign against pythons. Detection dogs have been brought in to sniff them. Contractors can now blast away with shotguns in Everglades National Park. And environmental DNA tests on water and soil are used to determine the presence of pythons in the ecosystem, Feeney said.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration suspended the Invasive Species Advisory Committee, which had coordinated efforts to get rid of pythons and other problematic species. The Tampa Bay Times editorial board condemned the decision to disband the committee, which only saved the federal government $30,000.
Even so, Florida’s statewide campaign against pythons remains strong. To date, Feeney estimates the python elimination program has removed more than 2,600 pythons since it began in March of 2017 which, he admits, is “a drop in the barrel.” But many of the pythons were pregnant, with the potential to give birth to up to 100 eggs at a time.
“Those pythons, had they lived to maturity, would have eaten hundreds of animals,” Feeney said. “We have given hundreds of thousands of native animals a fighting chance. We are just getting started.”
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)
In Iran, prospective python hunter Mohammad Asghari said he would kill for the job — despite loving snakes. He grew up watching documentaries about Florida wildlife and said he is willing to do what is needed to protect the environment from an invasive species. Waiting to hear back on his application, Asghari said he would have no problem relocating with his wife and two daughters to take the job.
As he puts it: “My dream is to grow snakes and work with snakes.”
©2019 Miami Herald
Visit Miami Herald at www.miamiherald.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): ENV-FLA-PYTHONS