Burmese Python: Dragon of the Everglades

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South Florida Burmese Python

The 2016 Python Challenge™ is moving at a record pace in south Florida. Sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the controversial python hunt, ostensibly to remove invasive snakes from the Everglades, produced a disappointing tally of only 68 snakes after 30 days of hunting in 2013. With cooler temperatures in south Florida, 100 pythons have already been taken in 2016. Hunters have capitalized on greater snake visibility as pythons bask openly in the sun to retain warmth. But is the hunt, slated to finish on Valentines Day, really for conservation or just a publicity stunt?

Raising the specter of giant pythons in the Everglades has become a media pastime in Florida. Clearly the appetite for this farfetched story is not easily sated. Lauded as some kind of invasive dragon devouring endangered wildlife and family pets alike, the Burmese python has become the stuff of folklore and myth: a modern day Jaws. A myth promulgated by environmental groups, invasion biologists and the press. Pythons being slain by champions eager to battle dark denizens for the ecological life of the Everglades has become a symbolic narrative that politicians have adopted and regurgitated for their own political purposes.

There is no denying that there are tens of thousands of Burmese pythons in the Everglades, but that’s far fewer than the 100’s of thousands touted by the likes of U.S. Senator Bill Nelson or Dan Ashe of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While pythons are certainly eating rabbits, rats, feral cats and an occasional small gator, what many people don’t realize, is that pythons don’t eat every day like a warm blooded predator. They may only eat a handful of times per year; hardly the “resource hogs” depicted by some biologists.

“Cold temperatures killed thousands of pythons in the Winter of 2009-2010. Numbers appear to be rebounding, but pythons are not being found as readily as they were. The population peaked in Summer of 2009 with highs estimated to be 30,000- 40,000 pythons.” — Shawn Heflick, Biologist and star of NatGeo WILD’s: The Python Hunters

Another part and parcel of the myth is the notion that pythons have no natural predators in the glades. Nothing to temper an unabated population growth, a notion that is patently false. Any biologist worth his salt can tell you, there are dozens of potential predators for pythons in south Florida. Baby pythons are extremely vulnerable to hawks and eagles, wading birds, predatory fish, raccoons, feral hogs, feral cats, not to mention the apex predator of the Everglades, the American alligator, which preys even on adult pythons.

The exaggeration of every detail surrounding the presence of pythons in the glades further clouds the facts. For a variety of reasons the press and the pundits seem invested in demonizing the python. The press loves the idea of a giant snake in the glades “eating everything in its path.” Clearly the public has a morbid fascination with snakes that kindles a primal fear. Environmentalists and agency personnel see opportunity to increase funding for invasive, and or endangered species research not stimulated by less sensational problems. Ambitious biologists seem to bank on decades of pythons study and research in their future. Politicians vilify the snake as a threat that can only be overcome with the appropriation of billions in Everglades restoration dollars. It is a rich issue with a handout for nearly everyone.

“… many are content to chase the ‘Burmese Dragon’ around south Florida like Don Quixote chasing windmills.” — Andrew Wyatt

But the reality is this: Burmese pythons are a relatively low rung on the ladder of serious problems facing the Everglades. They have become a red herring, a distraction, and a scapegoat from more fundamental problems that are either too contentious or too difficult to deal with. Instead of addressing issues surrounding big sugar, pollution, water flow or other more pervasive invasive species threats, many are content to chase the ‘Burmese Dragon’ around south Florida like Don Quixote chasing windmills.

Hunting invasive pythons, although not without merit, is not being pursued in earnest. The National Park Service (NPS) will not allow pythons to be hunted at the epicenter of the population in the Everglades National Park (ENP). Ironically, the NPS appears to be protecting those pythons in order to preserve a study group for ongoing research. For the hunts to be effective, they should be conducted in the ENP in an open and ongoing basis. For now, hunts are restricted to state lands around the periphery of the park, and are limited to 30 days every few years.

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Vendors selling snakeskin wallets and belts at the 2016 Python Challenge™

The actual 2016 Python Challenge™ takes on an air more commensurate with a rattlesnake round-up or a reality TV show, than an environmental clean-up. It attracts colorful characters from all over the country to ‘hunt’ the dreaded pythons. Vendors have booths and sell t-shirts, snakeskin wallets and belt buckles. There’s funnel cake and BBQ. FWC is omni-present “educating” the public about the dangers of large pythons, how to identify them, wrangle them, and how to report them. But one has to wonder if the purpose is conservation or carnival.

While some concerns regarding invasive pythons are legitimate, the dramatic characterization placing pythons at the center of all of the Everglades ecological troubles is way overblown. Efforts to reduce the population via the Python Challenge are ineffective and disingenuous. Python population will never be significantly reduced unless the hunt is conducted at the epicenter of the invasion in the heart of the ENP. Allowing an open season within the park is the only way to actually reduce numbers through hunting. This ‘Dragon’ hunt  can hardly be seen as anything but a side show, while the decline of the Everglades goes on with or without the Burmese python circus.


Andrew Wyatt is a government affairs and policy consultant working exclusively in the wildlife sector. He formerly served as the CEO of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK) where he twice testified before congress as an expert on python issues. Andrew has been interviewed on National Public Radio, by Bloomberg and by The New York Times.

Scimitar-horned oryx study aims to bolster reintroduction

“A radio collar behavioral study is underway at Fossil Rim as a precursor to an unprecedented reintroduction of the ‘extinct’ Scimitar Horned Oryx to Republic of Chad in Central Africa. This is how captive breeding projects really can act as a conservation safety net.” ~Andrew Wyatt

Words On Wildlife

With a species currently extinct in the wild ramping up for reintroduction to its native Chad next summer, there’s a lot on the line for the human parties involved.

Several groups of scimitar-horned oryx (SHO) will be released over time and monitored by GPS radio collars. But first, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) and Sahara Conservation Fund (SCF) among others need to know how the animals react to these collars regarding behavior, grazing activity and time under collar habituation.

Hence the study extending from November 2015 to February 2016 at Fossil Rim involving nine SHO females and one male. Supported by Fossil Rim team members and offsite collaborators, Stephanie Cunningham, Fossil Rim hoofstock behavior research and husbandry intern, is the project investigator.

Justin and Stephanie Justin Smith, Fossil Rim senior animal care specialist – hoofstock, holds a scimitar-horned oryx stationary as a GPS…

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Rhino1000 gathering steam to save a species

“A South African software company has floated an idea to Pat Condy of Fossil Rim, Charly Seale of the Exotic Wildlife Association, and ranchers from Texas and South Africa, that may save endangered white rhinos. Dubbed Rhino1000, the idea is in the early stages, and will be quite costly, but could bring 1000 rhinos to the USA in an unprecedented effort at conservation through captive breeding.” ~ Andrew Wyatt

Words On Wildlife

With the white rhinos of South Africa faced with the rapidly escalating threat of poaching at a rate of about four per day, likeminded locals and people across the Atlantic have decided to take action.

The Rhino1000 initiative is in its infant stages after being floated as an idea by the South African software company GroupElephant.com to the USA Exotic Wildlife Association (EWA) – many members of which own exotic wildlife ranches in Texas. Essentially, the name references the desire to help alleviate the rhino poaching epidemic by eventually building a population of 1,000 white rhinos from South Africa on the safer private Texas lands. Eventually, the plan calls for rhinos to be returned from Texas to South Africa.

South Texas quite closely resembles rhino habitat in South Africa in terms of landscape and climate, thus it became a focal point for Rhino1000.

Adam pose Adam Eyres, Fossil Rim hoofstock curator, details…

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Doc Antle’s New Blog: Tiger Tales

“Doc Antle is an amazing animal trainer. I visited his facility in the Summer of 2014. I have never seen anything like it. Absolutely fantastic!” ~Andrew Wyatt

Doc Antle's Tiger Tales

My name is Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, and I’ am best known for training big cats and great apes. It’s no secret that I have worked with the icons of Hollywood and giants of the music world. I’ve also worked with the most respected purveyors of educational programming in television and film. However, after a carreer spanning more than 30 years, my focus has now turned toward preserving the animals I love in their natural habitat.

Today I would like to invite you to follow my new blog, Tiger Tales. With this blog I hope to explore issues that are of the utmost importance to me. With the benefit of my perspective, hopefully a sense of urgency will be conveyed to you.

If we let the tiger go, we are losing a piece of ourselves forever. — Doc Antle, Rolling Stone

There is a lot of misinformation out there, and I want to set the…

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Black Rhino Hunt: Conservation Controversy

One Black Rhino May Help Save All Of The Rest

One Black Rhino May Help Save All Of The Rest

How hunting a critically endangered black rhino will greatly benefit conservation of the species.

Last January the Dallas Safari Club (DSC), auctioned off a permit issued by the government of Namibia to hunt a black rhino. Namibia is legally permitted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to sell five permits for the hunting of adult male black rhinos each year. The Namibian government has identified a small number of individual black rhinos that may be hunted that are old, incapable of breeding and pose a threat to other younger animals.

A prominent hunter and conservationist, Corey Knowlton, submitted the winning bid of $350,000 at the auction and subsequently applied to FWS for a permit to import the trophy into the US. DSC plans to donate the entire proceeds of the auction to benefit conservation of the black rhino species (Diceros bicornis).

The debate over the value of a black rhino hunt that would raise $350,000 for rhino conservation efforts in Namibia has heated to the boiling point once again. The question of whether the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) will issue a permit to import a black rhino trophy into the US is at the forefront of this debate. Anti-hunting animal rights groups that vehemently oppose the hunt are using the power of their grass roots followers to pressure FWS to deny issue of the permit.

Reports from the Namibian government suggest that an older non-breeding male rhino that is disruptive to the herd, will be selected. It is important to note that this rhino will likely be culled regardless of whether FWS issues the import permit or not. If the permit is denied DSC plans to refund Mr. Knowlton’s winning $350,000 bid.  If that happens, the rhino’s life will not be saved, and the conservation efforts in Namibia will not receive the $350,000.

According to FWS spokesman Gavin Shire, FWS is ‘applying “extra scrutiny” to Knowlton’s request because of the rise in poaching.’ By all accounts, although there was a rise in the numbers of poached white rhinos in South Africa, the overall population of black rhinos has been on the rise for a number of years.

“Thanks to successful conservation and anti-poaching efforts, the total number of black rhinos has grown…” ~ World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

Anti-hunting groups have long argued that hunting and poaching are indistinguishable. However, it is clear that this is a position driven by ideology. The reality is that hunting is legal and supports conservation. Poaching is a criminal activity that undermines conservation. What is unclear from the FWS statement, is how an unrelated rise in poaching arbitrarily dictates “extra scrutiny” toward the issuance of an import permit for a legal rhino hunt.

“Hunting isn’t conservation” ~ Jeffrey Flocken, North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)

Additionally, animal rights groups argue that money spent on hunting in Africa never reaches local communities or conservation, but according to a report from TRAFFIC, the organization that works with the WWF, IUCN, and CITES to track the international trade of wildlife, US hunters spend $11 million annually in Namibia on controlled, legal hunts. Further, if allowed by the US government, the $350,000 proceeds from this one single hunt would go exclusively to black rhino conservation in Namibia.

Those that are opposed to hunting are predisposed to object to any hunting based conservation model. Ideology aside, there is no doubt that millions of dollars are injected into the Namibian economy every year as the direct result of hunting. For FWS to deny issuing an import permit based on misinformation and pressure from special interests, would not only be a disservice to processing a legitimate permit application, but it would block $350,000 earmarked for black rhino conservation efforts.

“Sport hunting of Namibia’s black rhino population will strongly contribute to the enhancement of the survival of the species…” ~ World Wildlife Fund

Yesterday on the IFAW Facebook page, the animal rights organization was exhorting their followers to “Save One Black Rhino” by pressuring FWS to deny import permits. The fact remains that the rhino in question will likely be culled regardless of the decision of FWS. Wouldn’t it be better to allow Mr. Knowlton to hunt the rhino and import the trophy so that the auction money can go to rhino conservation? Preventing Mr. Knowlton’s hunt will accomplish only one thing:  it will prevent black rhino conservation in Namibia from receiving a $350,000 donation.  All real conservation happens at the species level. The survival of critically endangered black rhinos should not be held hostage to special interest politics.


Andrew Wyatt is a government affairs consultant that works exclusively in the wildlife sector.

WyattP2“Endangered species conservation and other wildlife issues are highly charged and contentious. I specialize in working with clients to employ campaign style tactics to change hearts and minds on vital issues in the wildlife sector. Please follow The Last Word for insight and analysis particular to the 21st century wildlife sector. If you would like to discuss the potential advantages of running a targeted issue campaign, and/or a comprehensive government affairs strategy, please call or email me.” ~ Andrew Wyatt


© Andrew Wyatt and The Last Word, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Wyatt and The Last Word with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

From rhinos to rosewood – illegal trade is on the up

From elephants and ivory to rhino horn and rosewood, it is clear that Thailand, not the USA, is a major epicenter of illegal trade. Characterizing the USA as central to these issues is a self serving ploy by NGO’s invested in using high profile emotionally charged rhetoric as a fundraising platform at home. Clearly the USA has little to do with the poaching of rhinos and elephants– and the trade in new ivory and rhino horn.” ~Andrew Wyatt

Project: African Rhino

RCS37 Siam rosewood tree ordained by Buddhist monk, with forest Thai armed guard protecting a precious Siam rosewood

For around two and a half years now, we’ve tried to keep a focus on what’s happening with the poaching of African rhinos via this awareness raising campaign.

As a result we’ve become fairly well versed in the wide-ranging and complex issues of the international wildlife trade – the third largest illegal business in the world after drugs and arms.

What we hadn’t completely got our heads round before was just how widespread and far-ranging the problem was. That it it’s not just iconic, headline-grabbing species like rhinos and elephants that are at risk of being poached to extinction.

RCS91 Khao Yai national park Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Last month we found ourselves in Thailand’s beautiful Dong Phoyayen-Khao Yai eastern forest complex visiting Thap Lan, Pang Sida and Kao Yai national parks. We were on assignment for leading French nature and photography magazine Terre Sauvage supported…

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Blood Ivory and More Dead Elephants

As written for National Geographic: A Voice For Elephants

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Photograph by Bruce Dale/National Geographic Creative

By Andrew Wyatt and Doug Bandow

Nothing embodies the power and majesty of wild Africa like the iconic elephant. Tragically, across the continent you can see the devastating impact poaching has had on this keystone species. “Blood ivory” poachers ply their trade from the killing fields of the African savanna to the major markets in Asia. Decades of poor policy have resulted in dead elephants littering the African landscape.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is making policy even worse. It is calling for more “ivory crush,” the destruction of existing ivory stores, and a ban on the legal trade of ivory within the United States. These proposals reflect a desperate misunderstanding of the illegal market and will only accelerate the slaughter of African elephants.

For instance, in early April Belgium joined the U.S., China, and host of other nations in the growing Ivory crush movement—supposedly to “send a warning” to ivory poachers. Alas, decreasing the world’s stockpile of ivory actually drives prices for blood ivory upward, thereby increasing profits for sophisticated poaching syndicates.

In early February, the Obama administration introduced the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. Two weeks later, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it would effectively ban all domestic ivory sales, even of antique objects. This step would punish the law-abiding while encouraging them to look for illegal outlets for their collections and inventories.

Unfortunately, the administration is playing the politics of deception, or at least deliberate misinformation. There is no doubt that poaching poses a threat to thousands of African elephants. But exaggerating claims for political advantage interferes with developing an effective conservation strategy.

FWS Director Dan Ashe and others have been circulating misleading information on elephant deaths, poaching, and the illegal ivory trade to advance an ideological agenda rather than to protect elephants. Among the more serious errors: “More than 35,000 elephants were killed in 2013 for the illegal ivory trade.” According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) program of Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), 25,000 elephants were illegally killed in Africa in 2011 and 22,000 were killed in 2012. While still unacceptably high, it is far less than the 35,000 (with some claims hitting 50,000) that has become the rallying cry for those campaigning to ban even old, legal ivory sales.

Moreover, not all of these elephants were killed by poachers. Many were killed by farmers and villagers, for whom elephants are dangerous pests. The World Wildlife Fund estimates elephants killed for their tusks at approximately 20,000 per year. The figures for 2013 have not yet been released, but probably are of the same magnitude as before. In fact, John Scanlon, CITES Secretary-General, recently stated that he saw “encouraging signs” that poaching may be stabilizing.

“The United States is the second-largest market for ivory in the world.” This statement, although true, is misleading. According to a study of domestic ivory trade by two wildlife specialists entitled The USA’s Ivory Markets—How Much a Threat to Elephants?: “The USA has the second-largest ivory market in the world, after China-Hong Kong. The illegal proportion of it, however, is much smaller than any country in Asia and most countries in Africa. The USA ivory market poses a minimal threat to elephants.” FWS spokeswoman Sandra Cleva said: “The vast majority of U.S. seizures involve small non-commercial quantities, a fact that refutes the claim that large-scale illegal ivory trade exists in the United States.” According to the monitoring network TRAFFIC, Thailand is actually the second-largest market for illegal ivory in the world.

The fact that supposedly responsible government officials knowingly mislead the public demonstrates how the ivory debate has become politicized, with an emphasis on symbolism rather than solutions. Fighting poaching and stemming the flow of “blood ivory” is difficult. It is far easier to feign empathy by punishing the innocent owners of ivory objects, even if decades or centuries old.

The Ivory crush is merely foolish, inflating illegal ivory prices and denying revenues to the developing states that contain most elephants. Worse is the plan to render legally valueless virtually every piece of ivory in America, even though accumulated over many years in compliance with the law.

The administration already has barred the import of ivory, even if centuries old with peerless provenance, punishing American collectors and dealers. Craftsmen repairing or working with old and legal raw ivory could lose their livelihoods. Owners of vintage musical instruments and guns are prohibited from leaving and returning to the U.S. with them.

Any item containing a tiny fleck of ivory in it could trigger federal legal action. The administration said it will not target “knick-knacks,” but people with hundreds, thousands, or millions of dollars worth of ivories will find no legal buyers, since the administration plans to require documentation that does not exist. And the easiest way for FWS employees to boost their enforcement statistics would be to target confused collectors and dealers rather than accomplished criminals who operate in the shadows.

Obvious alternatives exist. Any plan should target poachers and their U.S. contacts. FWS should enlist legitimate collectors and dealers in helping to uncover the illegal trade, rather than treat the law-abiding as enemies. FWS could issue a “passport” for musicians and gun owners to carry their possessions back and forth. If the agency—with the consent of Congress, rather than in a secretive rule-making process—is determined to more clearly delineate old legal ivory, it could phase in a registration system for legal ivory objects.

Those who own and work in ivory are as appalled as everyone else about the slaughter of elephants for their tusks. But the policy adopted should actually achieve its end, rather than encourage the trade in “blood ivory.” Moreover, the government should not punish law abiding, tax paying citizens who followed long-standing law in accumulating ivory. Federal policy should be both effective and fair.


Andrew Wyatt is a government affairs consultant who works exclusively in the wildlife sector and is a founder of USARK U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers. Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.


As written for National Geographic: A Voice For Elephants