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Kissimmee team builds python sensors that could help Everglades snake hunters

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 11/1/2019 By Marco Santana, Orlando Sentinel

As Donna Kalil tracks pythons in the Everglades, she uses skills refined over more than 250 swamp hunts in three years to capture the snakes.

A team of researchers in Kissimmee hopes to add some high-tech options for python hunters like Kalil, including infrared cameras and perhaps even snake-seeking drones one day.

The team has developed a sensor-based camera system that could more clearly reveal the Burmese pythons to hunters working to eradicate the invasive species that has invaded the state’s River of Grass.

“We need everything we can get,” said Kalil, a python elimination specialist who has done work for both the South Florida Water Management District and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “The way we are doing it now is not going to solve the problem. We need a bunch of tools, and tech is one that is lacking.''

Kalil, who has caught an estimated 270 snakes with the largest at 15 feet, has so far relied on understanding the terrain by following the reptiles in the grass and getting into the muck.

The researchers from UCF, New Smyrna-based Extended Reality System, and a Kissimmee-based team from the Belgian company called imec recently joined Kalil on a hunt in the Everglades.

They brought with them cameras that operate on wavelengths invisible to the human eye.

The devices are mounted on a pickup as the team drives the roads of the Everglades, watching monitors that reveal a snake’s location. The image onscreen reveals a snake’s presence in bright white.

A hunter can then go in and determine if the snake in the image is a python.

Eventually, the plan is to mount the cameras on drones to cover a larger swath of land quicker.

“We know the task is to find pythons,” said Orges Furxhi, a research engineer with imec helping lead the project.

Kalil came up empty while traveling with the team recently in the Everglades on a snake hunt. But she said she appreciates the effort.

“The more people who are coming up with potential solutions, the better,'' she said. "This is a step in the right direction.”

Experts believe the rise in pythons in the Everglades relates to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. As the powerful storm made its way across South Florida, it destroyed businesses breeding pythons as pets.

They had been part of a thriving industry in Florida, said Randy Smith, spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District.

“I’m not sure we really understood the magnitude of the problem we had,” he said. “We were breeding them as pets. Then Andrew hit, and the structures were flattened.”

Overall, 99 percent of furry animals in the Everglades, which once included thriving communities of raccoons, squirrels and rabbits, have disappeared since the python’s arrival.

“They have an insatiable appetite,” Smith said. “They are ambush hunters and have had their way in the Everglades.”

Estimates about the population of pythons in the region are educated guesses, at best. It might be in the tens of thousands or in the hundreds of thousands, Smith said.

The ideas for controlling the invasive species’ population have ranged from a program at Auburn University that trains dogs to sniff them out to using imec’s sensors.

But, so far, nothing has been as successful as human hunters, Smith said.

In 2017, the South Florida Water Management District began a python elimination program, with 25 hunters getting paid minimum wage plus a per-snake fee.

That project has resulted in more than 2,600 pythons eliminated since late March of that year and was recently expanded to include up to 50 hunters thanks to a $1 million grant.

“We are certainly hopeful the other technologies pan out,” said Smith, who has been in the wildlife industry 20 years.

While the vast majority have been smaller snakes – that is, those that are less than 4 feet long – three have been longer than 17 feet.

Regardless of size, however, researchers say getting an accurate count ? an impossible task without better technology — will help in efforts to quell the creatures.

“It would be nice to know exactly how many are out there,” said Ronald Driggers, a professor in UCF’s College of Optics and Photonics, who is also contributing to the imec-led project.

Kalil says that typically, she and a team of volunteers can capture and kill three or four snakes on any given night. She usually drives in regions known to be a nesting area or one that is home to pythons.

That sometimes means driving 30 to 50 miles a night, while being paid minimum wage and a per-snake fee, which is $50 for snakes up to 4 feet long and $25 for every foot beyond that.

“The word is just getting out, and it’s been a problem for decades,” she said. “People are realizing it’s a larger problem than we knew.''

Got a news tip? msantana@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5256; Twitter, @marcosantana

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