Most visitors to the mosquito-infested swamps of the Florida Everglades are happy to leave again quickly: a half-hour airboat ride and photograph of a basking alligator is usually enough to satisfy the curiosity of any tourist keen to return to the theme parks and beaches – or sports events – of the sunshine state’s more traditional attractions.
But Mike Kimmel wouldn’t be anywhere else. The professional wildlife trapper and self-styled python cowboy’s most recent excursion into the uninhabitable backwaters of the famed River of Grass region was rewarded with the grand prize in this year’s extra-special version of the annual Python Challenge encouraging the public to catch as many of the invasive giant snakes that decimate native wildlife as possible.
This year the hunt was called Python Bowl because nearby Miami is hosting the annual finale to the National Football League season – the Super Bowl – this weekend, which brings hordes of extra visitors to the state. The hunt attracted extra sports sponsorship and more categories and prizes this year, on offer to intrepid reptile hunters from near and far.
Local Kimmel bagged eight Burmese pythons, accounting for 10% of the entire haul of 80 captured during the 10-day event.
It was organised by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and South Florida Water Management District, with involvement from the Miami Super Bowl host committee this year, and strong support from Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis.
The Python Challenge had a category for armed service members and veterans this year for the first time, with different prizes for professional hunters and rookies.
The tally was a drop in the ocean compared to the tens of thousands of snakes thought to be lurking in the wild, upsetting the fragile ecosystem and devouring native wildlife such as deer, rabbits, raccoons and wading birds at an ever-increasing rate.
Kimmel won an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) for his efforts, presented at a ceremony in south Florida on Saturday at which fellow trapper Tom Rahill collected $4,000 in prize money for capturing the heaviest snake, a whopping 62lb, (28.1kg), and the longest at a slithering 12ft 7.3in (3.84m).
The Rookies’ prize for newcomers was won by Kristian Hernandez, also an ATV, for removing six pythons.
But most of the hunters were out of luck. According to the FWC, more than 750 hunters registered to take part in this year’s challenge from 20 states.
“It was not an easy win, that’s for sure,” Kimmel said in an Instagram post. “I ran into all kinds of obstacles.
“I hunted 10 days straight, covering thousands of miles of levees and woods, sleeping in the swamp when not hunting. [I] kept my nose to the grindstone and I can proudly say I gave it my all. The Lord and the swamp always provides for ‘ole Trapper Mike!”
Wildlife officials have been fighting a losing battle for years to try to purge pythons from the Everglades, employing a range of strategies, including the Python Challenge and training members of the public to capture the snakes. Other measures have included training dogs to sniff out the snakes, employing amorous male pythons known as Judas snakes to lead hunters to egg-laying females and even hiring chanting tribesmen from India.
Pythons have been slithering through the Everglades since the 1980s when some were released into the wild as overgrown pets. A research study in 2012 found a massive decline in the population of native Everglades mammals coincided with a proliferation in python numbers.