The Python Invasion: Documentary gives glimpse of invasive reptiles threatening the Everglades

Special to the Miami HeraldApril 21, 2014 

In 2013, Explica Media started principal photography on a documentary film on the spread of pythons and other invasive species in the Florida Everglades. The exotic animals poster-child is the Burmese python, a ravenous snake second in size only to the anaconda. In the places it has gained a foothold in the Everglades, native animal populations have crashed by as much as 98%. We are telling the story of the animals rapidly destroying the Everglades ecosystem. VIDEO VIA MIAMI HERALD

MIAMI HERALD

In the last decade, invasive Burmese pythons have done the unthinkable: challenge the American alligator at the top of the Everglades food chain.

The explosive spread will be featured in a series of video outtakes from the production shoots of a full-length documentary, The Python Invasion, which is slated for broadcast toward the end of the year on WPBT2.

The video snippets will be featured every week on MiamiHerald.com. The idea is to inform and educate people on the havoc plaguing one of the crown jewels of the National Parks system.

Experts say that pythons pose a grave threat to the Everglades. But the government is spending only “a paltry amount” to address the problem, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said in a recent interview.

“The challenge we are facing with invasive species like the Burmese python is extreme,” Ashe said. “In the Everglades, we have spent $8 billion to restore the Everglades ecosystem, and we’ll spend more in the days ahead, yet we’re only spending about $6 million on control of the Burmese python.”

If the python is the main character in the film, then the supporting cast is a rag-tag bunch of dedicated hunters, underfunded scientists and distracted activists. Filmmakers follow and interview python hunters, Gladesmen, scientists and activists.

According to the experts, an alarming percentage of medium-size creatures — including racoons, opossums, bobcats, deer, great blue herons, wood storks — have disappeared in some areas of the Everglades, leaving behind an eerie and desolate ecosystem, said Davidson College Professor Michael Dorcas, a python researcher.

Many have been found in the stomachs of Burmese pythons.

“If you had told me 10 years ago some of the things that we have found, I wouldn’t have believed you because I didn’t think it could happen,” Dorcas said in a recent interview. “We’ve seen declines across the board in mammal species that were once extremely common in Everglades National Park, and these species have declined by more than 90 percent in many cases and some 99 percent, and all the evidence shows that it’s primarily due to python predation.”

The Python Invasion takes viewers into an official python necropsy: on airboat hunts at night, in search of pythons underwater and live python captures.

In making the documentary, film crew members, who include editor Michael Alen, director of photography Carlos De Varona and assistant producer Abelardo Gonzalez, said they learned that pythons are actually benefiting from the inconsistencies in policy between agencies.

For example, python hunters are not allowed to hunt in Everglades National Park, where the snakes have a heavy presence. Policies on python control and hunting differ between several agencies that oversee the Everglades including the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the South Florida Water Management District.

“We’re spending billions of dollars to restore the Everglades, and here we have an invasive species that’s coming in and upsetting the entire apple cart of ecological balance,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said in a recent interview.

Shannon Estenoz, director of Everglades Restoration Initiatives for the U.S. Department of the Interior, said pythons could throw a wrench into Everglades restoration efforts.

“All of the work we’re doing to bring those populations back by restoring the system really is in jeopardy, and those investments of public dollars are in jeopardy,” Estenoz said.

The python story took a scary turn last year when a Miami-Dade biology student tearing through dirt paths on an ATV in South Miami-Dade came to a skidding halt in front of an animal that would have terrified the average person: a massive snake larger than any ever seen in the wild in North America.

It was a beast capable of killing and eating a full-grown deer, an alligator, even a human. Jason Leon hopped off his vehicle, snatched the 19-foot Burmese python by the neck and started wrestling for his life.

He tried to control the snake for more than 10 minutes, hoping to capture it alive. But it started wrapping around him, threatening to cut off circulation to his limbs. His friend handed him a knife and Leon beheaded the serpent. It slithered more than 10 feet down the dirt road headless, he said later in an interview.

“These snakes are massive,” said Leon, one of about a dozen permitted python hunters that filmmakers followed for several months. “Nothing out here messes with them.”

There are no simple solutions to the python problem, said Dan Kimball, the just-retired superintendent of Everglades National Park.

But more must be done, Nelson said. He said combating Burmese pythons should be considered part of Everglades restoration.

“When you restore all of that, if there is still an element that is disrupting that ecological balance,” Nelson said, “then the restoration of the Everglades is not complete.”

Oscar Corral, a former Miami Herald reporter, is the founder and president of Explica Media, and the director and producer of The Python Invasion.

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