Will Florida’s Python Hunt Get Hit By the Cobra Effect?

(Photo: William Warby)

A number of readers — an astonishingly high number, in fact — alerted us to a story about Python Challenge 2013, an effort by Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to “enlist both the general public and python permit holders in a month-long harvest of Burmese pythons” for the sake of “[i]ncreasing public awareness about Burmese pythons and how this invasive species is a threat to the Everglades ecosystem.”

The hunt, starting Jan. 12, offers a cash prize of $1,500 for “the participant harvesting the most Burmese pythons” and $1,000 for “the participant harvesting the longest Burmese python.” (There are actually two prizes of each amount: one for the General Competition and one for the Python Permit Holders Competition.)

Most of the e-mails we received said something like “Hey, I guess these folks didn’t listen to your podcast on the ‘Cobra Effect.’” In that podcast, we tell a variety of stories about bounties that backfired, resulting in a combination of fraud and pest proliferation.

We did contact the agency and were told that no, they had not listened to our podcast (or heard of “the cobra effect“). But, Carli Segelson, an FWC public-information officer, explained that the agency has thought hard about how to set up the python hunt to minimize fraud and mischief.

Some worthwhile points gleaned from our communication with Segelson:

  • Unlike a typical bounty program, which gives more cash for more corpses, this is a competition with only a few prizes. So, while a $1,500 winner-takes-all prize might indeed encourage some chicanery, at least it isn’t an open-ended payout scheme like some that we examined in “The Cobra Effect.”
  • The rules specify that pythons must come from within a designated area and must be turned in within 24 hours of death. Analysis of a snake’s stomach contest can (and will?) be used to make sure a snake was recently killed and came from the wild (i.e., wasn’t a pet or research animal).
  • Furthermore, to be eligible for the “longest snake” prize, a snake must be presented in no more than two pieces.

As Segelson told us: “We’re hoping to gauge the effectiveness of using an incentive-based model to remove Burmese pythons.”

All right, Freakonomics Readers. You are well acquainted with strange incentives and unintended consequences. How do you see this python hunt playing out? The first thing that came to my mind was a simple, fear-of-snake-based idea: $1,500 is probably enough money to coax some people who definitely shouldn’t be hunting snakes into hunting snakes. What could possibly go wrong with that?

(HT: Todd M., Pete Johnson, Maria Garcia, Jim Newman, Derek Allen, and many others — thanks!)

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COMMENTS: 23


  1. ScottCarr says:

    Who wants to start the first python farm in Georgia near the border?

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    • Enter your name... says:

      There isn’t enough time. If you started today, the snake probably wouldn’t have even laid the eggs by the time the contest ends.

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  2. Doug says:

    Teams will form, since teams will do better. Alice, Bob and Charlie are all equally skilled, and have a 1/3 chance of winning. Alice&Bob have a nearly 100% chance of winning.

    Alice can stand outside the fish and game, buying these ‘lottery tickets’ for a dollar from other hunters. Charlie might already know Alice is going to win, so he can at least sell his snakes for a guaranteed return while Alice makes her lead even bigger, encouraging more people to simply sell out to her. At some point she will have such a lead she no longer needs to buy. Thus an early lead with advertising of that fact would end the contest even though she was not a particularly good hunter, just the first out the gate and willing to arbitrage in snakes early.

    We had a referral system at work, where your first referral bonus was $1000, second was $2000, then $3000 etc… Eventually referring each new person was worth much more, so people would sell their first referral to someone with six, and they both got more. this set that person up to be even more likely to negotiate for number seven!

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  3. James says:

    “python permit holders”? This – along with the term “harvesting” – seems like a sad commentary on the mentality of officialdom. They’ve got an invasive species that is a serious threat to the ecosystem, yet (per a quick read of the link) they set up “harvesting” seasons, limit hunting to certain areas, require permits, etc? Instead of encouraging everyone to kill as many as they can?

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Permit holders can hunt pythons year-round. During hunting season, you just need the usual hunting licenses.

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      • James says:

        Yes, that was my understanding. The question is why anyone needs, or should need, a hunting license to kill this invasive species. It seems as though they’re trying to adopt the pythons and turn them into a regulated game animal.

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    • Steve Erickson says:

      The contest is being conducted for several reasons. In part, it draws attention to the problem. It also will provide specimens for determining python diets. And it will help provide guidance on creating a more sustained eradication program, though understanding the Python’s chemical ecology and using it against them is probably going to e more productive over the long term than classic hunting. As for liability, hold harmless waivers are required for participating in the contest. And because anyone can participate. it makes sense to restrict this to only certain areas for safety reasons, as well as because of the study design.

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  4. Warren says:

    @James. Sure this is a way for FL to reduce the python population but the reason they are controlling it so closely is because it’s true purpose is to collect survey data on the pythons. Paying out a couple thousand dollars to collect a sample size this large is way cheaper than paying a group of professional researchers to come and collect the data.

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  5. Eric M. Jones. says:

    You can buy an Accu-jack Python stretcher on Ebay for $49.95.

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  6. tylerh says:

    “. What could possibly go wrong with that?”

    Pythons are constrictors, not Vipers. Therfore they lack venom. It’s the rare python that can attack an adult human — and then only under special circumstances. That’s why people keep pythons as pets, but not Cobras.

    Inexperienced humans tromping around wilderness areas entails all sorts of risks, but python attack really isn’t one of them.

    Here are the six snakes you need to worry about:
    http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/herpetology/fl-guide/venomsnk.htm

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  7. Morgan Johnson says:

    I think the contest is successful only due to the media attention. And this will be a disincentive for catching smaller snakes that might be just as dangerous or can become larger…

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  8. Steve Erickson says:

    Hopefully, this will end up being a pilot program, since prolonged efforts at control are way overdue. Whether that involves frequent “contests” or a bounty program would have to be based on various factors, including management difficulty of the program. Potentially more productive in the long term would be research in the Burmese Python’s chemical ecology, with the aim of mass trapping and/or disruption of mating behavior.

    As for setting up a python farm in Georgia to sell snakes at a discount to people who then collect the prize(s) or bounty payments, you need the weigh the possible profit against a good long federal prison sentence. I realize that it is difficult to precisely quantify the value of time spent in prison for yourself (much easier for someone else), but it would be an informative exercise to perform before launching your python farming enterprise.

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  9. Colin Wright says:

    For $1500.00, no one’s going to bother to seriously game the system. The prize would need to be much bigger to create a sufficient incentive for that.

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  10. Matt says:

    I think the contest won’t accomplish much. Not enough incentive.

    What about spraying a virus on the habitat of the snake instead?

    The cause of a fatal illness that affects captive snakes has been identified, a study has shown.

    The condition – called Inclusion Body Disease (IBD) – affects constrictor snakes including boas and pythons.

    There is no treatment and symptoms include “stargazing” – a fixed upward stare – as well as breathing problems and general muscular paralysis.

    It was long suspected that the disease was caused by a virus, but until recently its identity remained elusive.

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    • Steve Erickson says:

      mUse of the Python’s chemical ecology is likely to be more productive and is being worked on. Iagine being able to bait Pythons over large areas into traps or disrupt mating behavior.

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  11. Wes says:

    Sending a bunch of random civilians out into the Florida swamps to capture burmese pythons.
    - What about the enormous liability of someone being injured/killed during such a competition (gators, poisonous snakes, other angry animals)?
    - What about environmental damage to the swamps/other species of animals a bunch of snake-hunters might cause?

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  12. Kiefer says:

    Well Some worthwhile points gleaned from our communication with Segelson

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  13. Randyycia G. says:

    This blog grabbed my attention because I saw something about this on tv months ago but I never saw an update on it. Since it is a growing problem I think the cash prizes are a great incentive to get rid of the snakes! But there are also some costs to that. This cash prize might be an incentive for people who don’t know anything about snakes to get guns and just go crazy shooting for a quick $1500. But i do think its a great technique to start getting rid of the snakes since they are becoming a threat.

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