Conservationists in Florida’s Everglades are taking increasingly desperate measures to fight back against a slippery problem: A booming population of invasive Burmese pythons that is eating its way through native squirrels, raccoons, possums and other animals with devastating efficiency.
Their numbers have ballooned ever since they first arrived during the 1980s, when oversized pet snakes are thought to have been dumped in the swamps by their owners.
Now it seems control measures are starting to pay off.
Last week, conservation officials celebrated a milestone, with the extermination of the 1000th python in just 14 months since they began employing hunters to control numbers.
End to end, the eliminated snakes measure about 1.4 miles, according to the South Florida Water Management District, and weigh in at more than eight tons.
Brian Hargrove, one of the professional hunters on the programme, bagged an 11ft 2in snake to reach the milestone.
He said he had seen the snake’s impact on wild populations with his own eyes.
“When we would come out here as kids, rabbits would be everywhere,” he said. “I’ve been out here hunting for months and I’ve seen one rabbit and 120 pythons.”
No-one knows how many pythons are at large within the swamps – maybe as many as 100,000 – but a 2015 study by the University of Florida revealed their devastating toll. Researchers released 95 marsh rabbits into areas known to harbour pythons and found that 77 percent were killed by snakes, reducing prey for native predators.
State officials said the hunting programme was an extremely efficient use of public money to control python numbers.
Hunters are paid by the hour plus a bounty depending on the size of snake. That starts at $50 (£38) for snakes up to four feet long, with an additional $25 for every extra 12in. Eliminating python nests with eggs bring $200.
Francis Rooney, a Republican Congressman for Naples, Florida, said: “The 12ft long python that is hanging in my office is a daily reminder of the need to eradicate this species and protect the unique ecosystem of our Everglades.”
He added that was working to allow hunting of Burmese Pythons within the Everglades National Park itself.
“This will speed up the process of eliminating these snakes, which are not native to our area and have no natural predators,” he said.