IN THE FLORIDA EVERGLADES -- The man known as "Alligator Ron" has a lifetime of experience in the Florida Everglades, a fleet of airboats at his disposal and knows the habitats of furry prey for large reptiles. He still couldn't lead a pack of hunters to a single Burmese python.
That's the catch in Florida's "Python Challenge": Even experienced hunters with special permits to regularly stalk the exotic snake through Florida's swamplands are having trouble finding them for a state-sponsored competition.
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"When these snakes are in the water, in the vegetation, they blend in naturally to where you can't hardly see them," said state wildlife commissioner Ron Bergeron, whose nickname is emblazoned on the rudder of his black airboat, over the image of him riding an alligator.
The vast majority of roughly 1,000 people who signed up to hunt Burmese pythons on public lands from Jan. 12 through Feb. 10 are amateurs when it comes to pythons. Only about 30 hold permits for harvesting pythons throughout the year.
The permit holders might have a slight edge when it comes to handling snakes, but the tan, splotchy pythons have natural camouflage that gives them an important advantage in the ecosystem they have invaded.
As of Thursday, 21 pythons had been killed for the contest, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
It's hard to pin down exactly how many Burmese pythons slither through Florida's Everglades, but officials say their effect is glaringly obvious. According to a study released last year, sightings of raccoons, opossums, bobcats, rabbits and other mammals in the Everglades are down as much as 99 percent in areas where pythons are known to live.
It's believed that the pythons are devouring the native wildlife and officials worry the snakes' voracious appetite will undermine the ongoing, multimillion-dollar effort to restore natural water flow through the Everglades.
Bergeron led U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., into the Everglades to hunt pythons Thursday afternoon. They splashed from their airboat through knee-deep water into several islands that rise in small bumps above the saw grass, but they always emerged empty-handed.
They didn't flush out any of the mammals Bergeron thought he'd see, either. The only thing they did find: signs of feral hogs, another problematic invasive species.
"Rabbits were like rats. Growing up, you saw them everywhere," said Jim Howard, a Miami native and a python permit holder participating in the contest. "I haven't seen a rabbit in 20 years. I don't see foxes. I hardly see anything."
He has caught a python in the Everglades in each of the last two years, though. Each was more than 12 feet long and contained more than 50 eggs.
He returned to those locations Wednesday, poking under ferns and discarded wooden boards with a hook at the end of a 3-foot-long stick. All he found were the sheddings of some large snake -- each transparent scale was the size of a fingertip.
After spending hours steering his boat along 14 miles of canals to levees and embankments where pythons might lurk, Howard extended the hook toward the dense, impenetrable grass that stretched all the way to the horizon, with no landmarks or vantage points.
Millions of acres in any direction in the Everglades are exactly the same. From that perspective, the hunt for well-hidden pythons seems futile.
"We're looking at inches," Howard said.
Officials say the number of pythons caught during the contest isn't as important as the data they provide.
"I'm going to be ecstatic if we see 100," said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida professor of wildlife ecology who is helping the commission with the contest.
He continued to lowball expectations for the final tally. "I'm happy with 11. I'm going to be happy with whatever we have. The small number only proves that they're really hard to find," he said.
The state hopes to use the information from python necropsies -- particularly what's in their stomachs -- to improve their attempts at dealing with the snakes.
"Our list of what pythons eat is not complete yet," Mazzotti said.
The population of Burmese pythons, an invasive species in Florida, likely developed from pets released into the wild, either intentionally or in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They can grow to be more than 20 feet long and have no natural enemies in Florida other than very large alligators or cold weather, which drives heat-seeking snakes onto sunny roads and levees.
Florida prohibits owning or selling pythons for use as pets, and federal law bans importation and interstate sale of the species.
Mazzotti had one tip for hunters frustrated by the pythons' near-invisibility: Stop and listen for a dry, rustling sound in the grass.
"It sounds like something large," he said.