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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  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. Kiefer says:

    Well Some worthwhile points gleaned from our communication with Segelson

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  5. 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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