Nineteen-year-old Matthew Concepcion killed 28 invasive snakes this year during the annual Burmese python hunt in Florida, earning him the $10,000 Ultimate Grand Prize, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced.
“Still on cloud nine,” Concepcion tells Jessica Vallejo of NBC 6 South Florida. “Couldn't believe it.”
The ten-day competition was created in 2013 to help rid the Everglades of the invasive snakes, which have few natural predators and are decimating native species.
Burmese pythons were introduced into the U.S. from Asia as part of the exotic pet trade. Between 1996 and 2006, about 99,000 pythons were brought over. Experts believe that owners released the snakes after they grew too large to handle, and the reptiles began breeding in the wild. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew destroyed a python breeding facility, and subsequent storms have likely continued to let snakes escape their enclosures and get loose in the Everglades.
The pythons have since gobbled up mammals, birds and reptiles, even preying on animals as large as deer and alligators. Between 1997 and 2012, raccoon populations dropped 99.3 percent, opossums plummeted 98.9 percent and bobcats declined 87.5 percent in the southern region of the Everglades. Marsh rabbits, cottontail rabbits and foxes virtually disappeared.
To make matters worse, the voracious snakes breed quickly: Females can lay 50 to 100 eggs at a time, per the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“The challenge is designed to remove as many pythons from the area as possible,” Michael Kirkland, a biologist with the South Florida Water Management District, told CNN’s Sara Smart in August. “Human detection and removal are the most efficient and effective tools in the toolbox right now.”
Altogether, about 1,000 participants from 32 states in the U.S., Canada and Latvia culled 231 pythons this year. Per the challenge rules, hunters can be disqualified for killing a python inhumanely or for killing a native snake.
“It’s all about our ecosystem,” Concepcion tells NewsNation's Morning in America. “I love Florida. I love the Everglades. I love to see it grow, and these snakes aren’t letting that happen.”
Concepcion tells Bill Kearney of the South Florida Sun Sentinel that he’s been hunting pythons for about five years. Usually, he uses his truck lights to spot snakes that are looking for warmth from the road. This year, however, he shifted strategies after finding several hatchlings in a levee.
“So, every single night from then on, I went out there—just before sundown to sunup,” he tells the publication.
Throughout his python-hunting career, Concepcion has been bitten four or five times, per the Sun Sentinel. He’s also had to dodge other hazards, including black widow and brown recluse spiders, writes Kendall Beebe of Fox 35 Orlando.
“Every time I am out there, I am scared to be out there,” Concepcion tells the publication. “You don't know what's going to crawl in the truck.”
This year’s prize for the longest snake went to Dustin Crum for a python that stretched just over 11 feet.
The 231 invasive snakes culled this year might just scratch the surface of Florida’s python population. Some experts believe there could be more than 100,000 of these creatures in the state, as Newsweek’s Jess Thomson wrote in June. But the hunters aren’t planning to stop anytime soon, officials say.
“Our python hunters are passionate about what they do and care very much about Florida’s precious environment,” South Florida Water Management District Governing Board Member “Alligator Ron” Bergeron says in a statement. “We are removing record numbers of pythons, and we’re going to keep at it.”