By Zachary Fagenson
OCHOPEE, Fla. (Reuters) - Thomas Aycock's life flashed before his eyes one night in the Everglades as a 13-foot Burmese python squeezed his arm and a leg in its coils.
Aycock, who was trying to bag the snake by himself, still recalls feeling its tail across his back.
"I knew what it was doing, it was going for my throat," said the 54-year-old Florida Army National Guard major who was able to wrestle free during that incident in the summer of 2018.
"I said to myself, 'It can't go down like this.'"
That scare has not stopped him from returning again and again to the sprawling wetland, devoting almost every spare moment to searching the thick brush and sawgrass for more snakes, as he was doing during this interview.
The state encourages hunters to capture or kill the giant, invasive south Asian snakes that are decimating local wildlife.
Dozens of hunters are prowling the Everglades during Florida's 10-day Python Bowl, which ends Monday.
Armed with long metal hooks that resemble fireplace pokers and bags, many hunters catch the snakes and take them in live.
Those who take the most longest and heaviest pythons each will win $2,000 in cash.
Other prizes include off-road vehicles.
Aycock and his fellow hunters are spending days and nights slowly creeping across the webs of levees that span the Everglades by foot, bicycle and souped-up SUV looking for the glint of an eye or the shine of brown and black scales.
First found in the Everglades around the year 2000, the snakes were introduced by pet owners and possibly a snake research facility that was destroyed when Hurricane Andrew struck the region in 1992.
The behemoths, some of which measure more than 18 feet (5.5 m) long and weigh more than 100 pounds (45 kg), have wreaked havoc on the fragile ecosystem.
A 2012 study in Everglades National Park by the United States Geological Survey found 99% fewer raccoons, 98% fewer opossums and 87% fewer bobcats. Massive snakes have even been found trying to eat alligators.
"I saw an opossum last night out on the levee and it was the first small animal I've seen in probably five or six months," Aycock said.
Agencies including the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission have all launched python removal programs in recent years, offering hunters hourly wages and bonuses depending on the size and weight.
According to a 2019 report, contracted python hunters brought in about 1,900 snakes since the program launched in March 2017.
The success has been hard fought.
Despite their size and numbers, which some estimate in the hundreds of thousands, Aycock said it can take eight hours on average to find a snake.
From the start of the program to mid-2018, the most current data available, hunters working for both agencies spent 14,000 hours in the field yielding 1,186 snakes.
Some larger females have been found holding up to 100 eggs.
"We're targeting removal in bird rookeries, in sensitive ecological areas, so regardless of the snakes' population we know every one removed makes a difference," said Kristen Sommers, the state's wildlife impact management section leader.
Yet on Wednesday night, finding even one proved impossible for Aycock.
The cooler weather meant the cold-blooded serpents stayed hidden and out of sight.
"Every python removed out of this ecosystem serves a purpose in restoring this ecosystem," Aycock said. "We have a good time out here, but it's also a mission we take seriously and are willing to work at."
(Editing by Scott Malone and David Gregorio)