Pythons are devastating native wildlife in one of America's most ecologically diverse areas. Armed groups are combing the Everglades in a bit to kill off an invasive species with a voracious appetite.
Thomas Rahill is a telecoms engineer by day. But in his olive fatigues and wide-brimmed hat he looks more like a rebel army commander. His mission? To defend the American wilderness from a deadly reptilian invader: The Burmese python.
"When you come across a big python, I don't care where you are, it is a very dangerous animal, you have to know what you are doing," he says.
Rahill is founder of the Swamp Apes, a team made up of mainly ex-military people, hired to tackle a problem that's devastating wildlife in the Florida Everglades.
He roams this dramatic landscape throughout the day in his dirt-splattered old Chevy, using a roof-mounted spotlight to pick out the sinister form of a giant snake, slithering past or hanging from a tree.
"Pythoning is nothing like you'd expect it to be, yet it is everything you'd hope for," Rahill says enthusiastically.
Biodiversity under threat
The word Everglade means "river of grass," and the Everglades are, in fact, one giant, very slow-moving river. It once covered the whole of South Florida but human development has reduced the Everglades by half.
It is still one of most biodiverse areas of the United States. But much of the wildlife here is now under threat from pythons thought to have escaped from the pet trade.
Their numbers exploded in the late 1990s. With an ideal subtropical climate and plenty to eat, the Burmese python thrives in the Everglades. A single female can lay up to 100 eggs.
Rahill and other dedicated hunters scour the Everglades in the daytime and by night, hoping to catch sight of a giant python
Mammals like raccoons and marsh rabbits, as well as birds are all on the python's menu. A 16-foot (4.8-meter) Burmese python in the Everglades was even found with an adult deer in its belly this past fall. And as populations of these smaller mammals dwindle, the effects can be felt up the food chain, as native predators like panthers and alligators lose their primary food sources.
"The biodiversity starts to plummet," says Christopher Smith, a veterinarian at the Welleby Veterinary Hospital in Sunrise, Florida. "How do those ripple effects start to go outwards? I don't even know if we have a grasp of that yet."
Smith says little is known about the lives of Burmese pythons in the Everglades. He and his colleague Andrea Zimandy are Swamp Apes board members, and are helping state agencies study the pythons' behavior and understand their movements.
But there's agreement that desperate measures are needed to keep their numbers down.
Python hunts are taking place throughout the year in parts of Everglades National Park, sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. And now the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) has licensed a select group of 25 hunters, including Rahill, to participate in a pilot python-hunting program this year.
Every python over four feet in length has a bounty of $50 (44.50 euros) on its head, with an extra $25 for every additional foot. A 20-foot giant would bag its killer $450. The water district program is also paying each hunter the state's minimum wage of $8.10 an hour.
The reptiles cannot be captured and removed from the Everglades alive without proper permits, which are difficult to obtain. Those participating in the pilot project must kill the snakes using firearms or decapitation.
Pithing - or a blow to the head with a blunt instrument - is also a permitted method of dispatching the animals. In fact, this is the method the Swamp Apes favor.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is particularly concerned about decapitation, a method the organization has urged state agencies to outlaw.
A humane solution?
"We believe very strongly that if the snakes must be removed, it must be done humanely," says Lori Kettler, Deputy General Counsel for PETA. "Reptiles have a very slow metabolism. So a snake that is decapitated continues to experience pain up to an hour after decapitation."
Grabbing the powerful constrictor from the back of the head is the best way to restrain it, says veterinarian Andrea Zimandy
Still, Smith and Zimandy train Swamp Apes so they can, the pair say, restrain and kill the massive constrictors humanely.
"You generally want to control the most powerful part of the animal, which, in their case, is their mouth," veterinarian Zimandy says. "So if you are able to grab behind their skull and restrain that way, then you are better able to control their bodies."
So far this season, hunters have bagged just over 100 Burmese pythons - a drop in the ocean, considering the population is estimated at up to 100,000. But it's an enthusiastic start, and so far, the best defense the Everglades has against the killer snakes.