Tom Rahill knows the Everglades. He has been camping, hiking, clearing trails, and "hanging out" in Florida's River of Grass for an estimated 35 years. When he sweats, Rahill says he "even smells like the Everglades." A participant in the recently-wrapped and much-maligned Python Challenge, Rahill recognizes that much of the press and public appear unimpressed with the contest's final tally of 68 snakes.
Hunters spent a month searching the Everglades for the invasive predators. It has been estimated that there are tens of thousands -- if not 100,000-plus -- pythons living in the wilds of South Florida.
Rahill and his team, The Swamp Apes, hunted for 12 days, covering 145 miles and capturing 10 snakes. The Swamp Apes are a group of wounded and non-wounded military veterans and non-military volunteers focused on environmental preservation projects.
Though the number of killed and captured snakes may not meet public expectations, Rahill said that doesn't mean the final tally was insignificant. It also doesn't indicate there isn't a problem with the invasive exotic species, he said.
"We got 10 snakes, but I saw way more signs of them," Rahill said. Among the indicators were python trails, bedding, nesting sites, and scat: "I can even smell them."
Rahill said he can also see "the results" of pythons when he enters an area "where you should see lots of birds, rats, swamp rabbits" and instead finds inactivity. "In areas where the snakes have been established, it's eerily quiet for the Everglades," Rahill said.
Of course, pythons aren't the only invasive creature putting the hurt on native Florida wildlife. At Saturday's Python Challenge awards ceremony and awareness event at Zoo Miami, a variety of government agencies and volunteer organizations were on hand to educate attendees about the dozens of unwanted guests crowding out Florida's native ecosystem.
"Isn't it kind of the same reason we're a hot bed for New Yorkers?" said Stuart Krantz of Florida's invasive-friendly landscape.
Krantz, a volunteer with the Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area, said the state's weather, environment, and access to ports are likely reasons for the proliferation of non-native plants and animals.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission executive director Nick Wiley told Saturday's awards crowd that the data collected from the culled snakes -- many of which were sent to a University of Florida lab for analysis -- will help to answer questions about how non-natives adapt to Florida's environment.
"We still have much to learn about the populations and their impacts," Wiley said. "We've heard speculation daily about the numbers: Every python taken out of the system is a great benefit."
Wiley said the 68 harvested snakes represent an "unprecedented" number and that state agencies will learn more as the data and analysis are concluded.