By David Pendered
The era of the wild-caught rattlesnake roundup has ended in Georgia as the state’s last festival to collect live snakes shifts March 5 to a format similar to a county fair.
The 2022 Whigham Rattlesnake Roundup won’t feature the capture of live rattlesnakes, as it has since it was started in 1960 by the Whigham Community Club. Instead, the event will feature a reptile show, arts and crafts, food vendors and rides for children.
The Whigham Rattlesnake Roundup is a significant cultural event in southwest Georgia, where it has served as a whistle stop on the campaign trail. The rattler roundup was a place for candidates to meet crowds estimated at 50,000, even 100,000, in a sparsely populated area of the state located south of Albany and west of Cairo.
“I don’t know that we ever had 100,000, but we had some big crowds,” Dr. Jimmy Cox, of the Whigham Community Club, said in a Facebook video in which he traces the history of the event and plans for this year’s festival.
Members of the Whigham Community Club began the roundup as an attempt to reduce the population of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes in the piney woods around their community, Cox said.
“We got started because we were having problems in the area with hunters and bird dogs getting bitten by rattlers,” Cox said. “We had the community club going. They decided to start a project of going out in the woods and catching rattlers to reduce the snakebites.”
The community club used proceeds of the annual rattlesnake roundup to pay for various civic projects. Snakes harvested during the event were destined to be milked for venom, killed and their skins processed or sold to reptile spectacles in Florida that put on shows intended to attract paying tourists. These are big snakes. The species is the largest of the 32 recognized species of rattlers and one snake can weigh more than 10 pounds.
In the woods around Whigham, the snakebites were more than a health hazard. They were bad for business.
This is quail country, a destination for big-money hunters. The price was $5,550 per person for a three hunt day, four-night vintage experience on either Super Bowl weekend or this past weekend’s “Readers and Writers Hunt,” at Pine Hill Plantation, located near Donalsonville, about 25 miles northwest of Whigham.
Snakes remain enough of a concern in the region that Morrison Pines Plantation, near Moultrie, advertises that it offers hunters protections against snakes. A page on Morrison’s website states: “Snake chaps and vest are furnished at the lodge.”
Environmentalists had complained for years about rattlesnake roundups in Whigham and other communities across the South. Whigham was the last live roundup in Georgia after Claxton halted its roundup a decade ago, according to a report by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division.
A group of environmentalists contended that the hunts contributed to a population decrease of eastern diamondbacks. In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a status review of the species at the behest of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Coastal Plains Institute Inc., Protecting all Living Species, and One More Generation.
The service determined the complaint, filed in 2011, provided enough concerns to investigate the potential listing of the animal as an endangered species. Neither the FWS nor DNR have listed the eastern diamondback rattler as protected.
Cox attributed the shift in focus of the rattlesnake roundup, from live capture to entertainment, as part of the result of a drop-off in hunters and the demise of native habitat for the eastern diamondback.
“We don’t have as many hunters now,” Cox said. “The habitat where snakes live has been reduced. We have a lot of land clearing. So, we’re getting away from catching snakes and taking them out of the wild.”
Although FWS does not list the eastern diamondback rattler as endangered, the gopher tortoise is a candidate for federal protection. The snakes often live in burrows dug by gopher tortoises. FWS reports the gophers are threatened by causes including “habitat fragmentation and degradation, predation, inadequacy of regulatory mechanisms, and incompatible use of herbicides in forest management and some silvicultural activities.”
- Whigham Community Club: Whigham Rattlesnake Roundup
- Georgia DNR: “No wild-caught rattlers for Whigham”
- Georgia DNR: Biodiversity portal
- FWS: “90-day finding on a petition to list the eastern diamondback rattlesnake as threatened”