On the Hunt for Conservation: An Interview With Photographer Dylan Johnston On The Great Burmese Python Hunt

Can Florida Eradicate the Invasive Burmese Python?

Text by Michael Adno


Just outside Everglades City, lies a vast expanse of wetlands and narrow service roads lined with dense flora matched by an incomparable eco-system of animals. There is undoubtedly no other place in the world like the Everglades, but the way in which the State of Florida and the Federal Government has treated the area in recent years is indicative of a painful apathy towards how to best preserve this irreplaceable resource or to abate the effects of climate change.

Nearly a year ago, President Barack Obama visited the Everglades to stress the importance of making climate change a priority within his administration and for pertinent officials to take note. This also came at a time when the Obama administration stood to benefit by prompting—then Republican presidential candidates—Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio to acknowledge the urgency of conservation on a national platform. Unfortunately, both demonstrated a frightening insensitivity to the need for conservation efforts in Southern Florida, possibly hindered in their campaigns’ ties to big sugar companies in the state.

The Everglades have been affected adversely by agricultural development, the influx of invasive flora and fauna, as well as the passivity of the state’s environmentally-deft administration. One of the most hard-pressed issues facing the area, is the over population of the non-native Burmese Python, introduced to the environment by exotic pet-keepers who released their increasingly difficult to care for pets. Now the park has become littered with the sit-and-wait predator that has thrived in its environment but at the cost of a great deal of other species such as birds, alligators, and small rodents which play instrumental roles in the homeostasis of the Everglades.

Dylan Johnston has documented the Florida Python Challenge, one of the Florida Wildlife Commission’s more successful attempts to eradicate the invasive and evasive snake, for the past three years. In 2013, he began the project after mention from a friend in Sarasota, only a few hours from the river of grass, and has worked on the project since, immersing himself in the unforgiving environment that is the Everglades. Johnston, from Ft. Pierce, has worked on plenty of projects and assignments in his home-state, detailing the life of working in junkyards to rigging ballyhoos while trolling for pelagic species in the Gulf-stream just off Southern Florida’s east coast. It’s safe to say that Johnston has an immense amount of investment in working towards sustainable conservation, so I caught up with him recently to detail some of the finer points of his project, N 27º/25º. 

Michael Adno: How did you begin this project? And what was your approach?

Dylan Johnston: I first started working on it in my senior year of College [2013]. A dear friend mentioned the python challenge, and it sounded compelling to me, so I went down and took a look. I went down just with a large format camera and eight sheets of film. I shot those eight sheets, and then I decided I would go back next week and really dive into it. The hunt is directed toward eradicating this invasive species [Burmese python] that kill and adversely effect the native species in the Everglades. So after that first trip, I wanted to bring a level of awareness to the issue as I’m a native Floridian. I wanted to help protect Florida in a way, if I could. That first trip opened my eyes, and I realized I wanted to keep working on the project from that point.

Adno: What was your method? What were you looking for in making these photographs?

Johnston: There’s a lot of different areas of the Everglades, some that don’t allow hunting whatsoever, but during January and February there are certain areas that allow hunting but only for the Burmese python of course. I would just drive those roads. I didn’t know any hunters, especially when I first started, so I’d look for camps of hunters and try to meet people, which would involve me staking out the place and waiting for somebody to come by. I’d try to tag along with them if I could. Sometimes, I’d walk with them for three, four hours. Sometimes, I would take their photograph, and they would take off afterward. I was looking for hunters rather than snakes though, because if I could find a hunter then I could find a snake more easily. Most of it was driving around aimlessly, taking my car as far as it would go into the woods and possibly travelling by foot if I saw something further down the road where my car couldn’t go.

Adno: How did you approach your subjects and present what you were doing?

Johnston: I had an elevator pitch, a short thirty second bit. I would either say I’m shooting an assignment or explain that I was trying to bring awareness to this issue. I would of course try to help on the hunt—in any way that I could. But I’m good at bullshitting with strangers I realized because of this project. I’m good at meeting somebody and talking shit with them, forming a quick relationship. Also, I would feel it out. Some guys didn’t want me there, so I would try and make an image and then tell them to, ‘Have a good day. Have a good hunt.’ It was usually just a matter of feeling people out, and if I seemed welcomed, I would tag-along. Sometimes, I’d be allowed to follow them around the entire day.

Adno: Do the hunters have a concern for conservation or are they more interested in hunting and the opportunity to hunt a snake?

Johnston: When I first went, during the 2013 season, there was a lot more people hunting than in 2016. I met a lot of good-ole-boys, more rednecks, who were out there for the thrill of the hunt, just to say they killed a python. It was a good mix though. Some were out there for the trophy aspect but a lot were also there to help the Everglades.  It’s also a bragging rights type of story. I would say ninety percent were there to help and understood it as a serious issue that deserved more attention. In 2016, I think I only saw one raccoon and no other small animals. It was unbelievable. The snakes are eating everything and contributing in part to the area’s fragility.

Adno: How well supervised is the event? How much can people get away with?

Johnston: If you find a python in the wild, you can kill it, no questions asked. The Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC), wants you to report it so they know the size of the snakes and where they were found, but it’s really just limited to where you can use a gun. Like in the Big Cypress Preserve, you can’t hunt, except during the first two weeks of the hunting season when they lift the ban specifically for python hunting. So if you find ten snakes on your property, you can kill ten snakes, but they just ask that you report it. During the hunt, there’s restrictions on what species of snakes you can kill, and it’s limited to the Burmese python. If you kill a cottonmouth and are caught, you’ll be disqualified and fined. FWC patrols the areas, but they rely heavily on word of mouth via other hunters. When I was there, one group saw another group come across a rattlesnake and kill it pointlessly, so they let FWC know etc. Like I said before, some are just there for bragging rights or to kill a snake, but most people are there to help. On the second day of the season, an FWC officer actually shot and killed a sixteen-foot python, which may have won the challenge if he wasn’t banned from participating. But more to the point if you or I were there, we could legally kill a python.

Adno: You don’t need a tag or permit to hunt pythons?

Johnston: There’s permits for the competition/challenge. They give you a list of rules and instructions etc. It costs twenty-five dollars and gives the FWC a sense of how many hunters are out there or how many guns are in the area roughly. That ensures that the people participating in the hunt know what they’re doing. Grab them this way. Transport them like this. You can’t hunt here etc. It’s also a way to make people more aware of the risks involved. Snakes are everywhere not to mention gators, but keeping hydrated is also a concern there.

Adno: Have you heard any horror stories or particularly compelling stories about python hunting?

Johnston: Well, I haven’t heard any horror stories, but one of the groups that I met up with—called the Swamp Apes, managed by this guy Tom Rahill—is an interesting one. He organizes this hunting group made up of veterans, mostly with post-traumatic-stress disorder. And he does it weekly, bringing in a ton of snakes. If he feels like going hunting, he’ll go that night and call a few people. There’s a lot of other people who go out and specifically target pythons, but it’s not as organized as the Python Challenge. Essentially, they only need a permit for the guns they use and to be in an area where you can use a gun. The state officials who look after the area just want it to be done humanely. They don’t want people to stab or prolong the death of the snakes, so they often encourage people to capture them and then bring them into a designated drop-off station alive.

Adno: How do you personally see the python challenge?

Johnston: I see it as helpful. They’re not putting a big dent in the snake population, but they’re helping in other ways by bringing light to the issue that the Everglades is extremely fragile. I mean one clear point they’ve made is that the invasive population of Burmese pythons began with people who owned exotic pets and released them here in South Florida. And now they’ve taken over the environment, wiping out bird populations, gators, etc. I believe the hunt is helpful just for conservation, but the Burmese python is just one of many invasive species that have been introduced in Florida.

Adno: Are you drawn to any of the other invasive species that Florida has?

Johnston: I met a few people who were hunting monitor lizards when I was there, but I didn’t spend too much time with them as it was a completely different story. I’m actually dying to work on a story about lionfish in Florida. The Florida Keys are littered with them, and fisherman are required by law to kill them if caught or sighted while diving. I actually ate some of it during the python challenge. It’s pretty good. I’d eat it again.

Adno: What would you like to see happen in the Everglades?

Johnston: It’s sad, because it is truly the only environment in the world like this. So between the water output from Lake Okeechobee and the snakes, it’s a natural catastrophe aided by people. It’s so difficult to clean that place up. It’s a natural filtration system that’s being wiped out. It’s a great area for enjoying the place recreationally whether it’s hunting with regard for conservation or the air-boat culture, so I don’t think they should limit that any more, but eliminating the invasive species should be a top priority. I want people to enjoy it as it is and not to cause anymore harm if that’s possible.

Adno: Do you think of the people who enjoy the Everglades recreationally as proponents of preserving the environment?

Johnston: Yes, most of the people I’ve met are absolutely invested in trying to protect the place. We mentioned Tom Rahill, bringing in a few snakes a week, getting out there when he can. The people who are out there for the thrill of the hunt or the trophy, they go out for a long weekend shoot some guns, drink some beer, and they play no part in it. If they bring some snakes in, great, but they usually don’t.

Adno: What’s the Everglades like now?

Johnston: It’s all farms, very small towns, and still ‘old Florida.’ In Everglades City and Chokoloskee, a lot of immigrant laborers make up the communities there. It’s just acres and acres of crops with quiet small towns that revolve around hunting, fishing, and farming with an influx of agricultural jobs.

Adno: What do you think the ultimate reward for these hunters is?

Johnston: It’s a cool story to have. To catch a Burmese python is bragging rights. A lot of people do just want to help out, and if they can help out and have a story, that’s even better.

Click here to see more from Dylan Johnston's python hunter series. Text and interview by Michael Adno. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE