An invasive species in the Florida Everglades is threatening the area's sprawling ecosystem.are apex predators, at the top of the food chain.
South Florida has hired 25 top hunters to capture and kill the snakes.
A nearly 17-foot-long python was killed last week — the longest captured so far in this program. CBS News' Mark Strassmann got a first-hand look at how the are going high-tech.
In a remote corner of the Everglades, Rodney Irwin hunted by drone for a snake in the grass. On an embankment 20 yards away, the drone spotted a seven-foot Burmese python warming itself on a rock. Irwin closed in.
"This is a Burmese python. This is the one that's causing all the trouble," Irwin said.
Burmese pythons, giant constrictors native to Asia, became a nuisance in Florida after 1992. Hurricane Andrew toppled a reptile breeding facility and all its pythons slithered into the wild.
Females of the species can lay dozens of eggs at a time, and by one estimate, 100,000 Burmese pythons live in the Everglades today. Some can grow longer than 20 feet, and here this invasive species has no natural predators.
They're non-venomous, but those rows of teeth are razor sharp. The Burmese coils itself around its prey, squeezes and suffocates it before swallowing whole. Video shot late last year in the Everglades shows a Burmese strangling an alligator.
"They have an articulating jaw and that allows them to be able to eat and swallow just massive objects that you would not think that a snake could do. They captured one here, not too far from here that had a deer inside," Irwin said.
To these, the Everglades are a buffet that never closes. They devour birds and mammals and disrupt food sources for panthers, alligators and other creatures.
This month, the South Florida Water Management District launched a Burmese bounty program. Through May, 25 elite hunters like Irwin can capture and kill as many as possible. They also get to sell what they catch.
"I make a whopping $8.15 an hour and when you capture a snake anything under four feet is $50 and then it's $25 a foot as its goes up," Irwin said.
Hunters have trapped roughly 100 snakes already, some of them huge. Patrick Campbell's catch measured 15 feet, 10 inches. Leo Sanchez and Nicholas Banos. It weighed 144 pounds.
We saw, up close, the one Sanchez and Banos caught – dead but still intimidating – outside Brian Wood's exotic leather store in Hollywood, Florida.
Wood has spent nearly 30 years selling animal skins to marquee names like Gucci and Hermes.
"Absolutely, it's good for the environment, it's good for the hunters, and it's good for everyone. It's a win-win," Wood said of the new program.
"I don't do this for the money," Irwin said.
Irwin sees himself as fighting on the front lines of South Florida's war on the Burmese pythons.
"I do this because it needs to be done," Irwin said.
In hunters like him, this opportunisticmay finally have met its match.
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