Florida has a python problem. So many of the voracious giant snakes — which can reach nearly 20 feet in length — now slither through the state that Florida's native species are in precipitous decline. Burmese and African pythons started showing up in the state around 1992 and have since bred prodigiously in the wild. By some estimates, there are tens of thousands of the invasive snakes hiding in Florida's forests, grasslands and swamps.
To help make a dent in the snake population, Florida has declared a month-long open season on pythons in the Everglades. Nearly 400 people from 17 states have signed up for the Python Challenge, according to a report from the Sun Sentinel. The hunter who kills the largest Burmese python by the time the competition closes will win $1,000. Whoever kills the most snakes can win $1,500.
The competition, which runs from Jan. 12 to Feb. 10, is being organized by the Wildlife Foundation of Florida, which the state established in 1994. The hunt will be supervised by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Unlike previous python hunts, this year's participants don't need to possess hunting licenses, nor do they need to undergo in-person training on how to be safe around the snakes. Competitors must take an online training program teaching them the difference between invasive Burmese pythons and native Florida snakes.
The Sun Sentinel interviewed many of the hunters who planned to participate in the challenge who cited their love of the Everglades as their reason for participating. Others were less positive, emphasizing the risk. "You've got venomous species, like the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and the cottonmouth," said reptile industry expert Warren Booth, assistant professor of biology at the University of Tulsa. "I think we're going to see native wildlife being killed and a potential human safety issue with people being bitten."
Also worrying about the hunt is the animal-rights organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which says that one of the permitted methods of killing the snakes — decapitation — is inhumane.
The challenge has attracted national attention. The News-Press reports that at least two television production companies have pitched cable TV shows about the hunt and have already contacted participating hunters to see if they are interested in appearing on camera.
Shawn Heflick, star of the National Geographic TV show "Python Hunters," told Reuters that he doubts many of the hunters will ever see any pythons. "The vast majority of them will probably curtail their hunting very quickly when they figure out there's a lot of mosquitoes, it's hot, it's rather boring sometimes — most of the time really — and I think a lot of them will go home," he said.
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