'Python challenge' attracts 800 hunters
An armed mob set out into the Florida Everglades yesterday to tackle an infestation of Burmese pythons that are eating their way through a fragile ecosystem.
Nearly 800 people signed up for the month-long "Python Challenge" that started yesterday afternoon. The vast majority - 749 - are members of the general public who lack the permits usually required to harvest pythons on public lands.
"We feel like anybody can get out in the Everglades and figure out how to try and find these things," said Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "It's very safe, getting out in the Everglades. People do it all the time."
Twenty-eight python permit holders also joined the hunt at various locations in the Everglades. The state is offering cash prizes to whoever brings in the longest python and whoever bags the most pythons by the time the competition ends at midnight on February 10th.
Dozens of would-be python hunters showed up for some last-minute training in snake handling at the University of Florida Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Centre in Davie.
The training came down to common sense: Drink water, wear sunscreen, don't get bitten by anything and don't shoot anyone.
Many of the onlookers dressed in camouflage, though they probably didn't have to worry about spooking the snakes. They would have a much harder time spotting the splotchy, tan pythons in the long green grasses and woody brush of the Everglades.
"It's advantage snake," mechanical engineer Dan Keenan concluded after slashing his way through 400m scratchy sawgrass, dried leaves and woody overgrowth near a campsite in the Big Cypress National Preserve, which is about 89km southeast of Naples and is supervised by the National Park Service.
Mr Keenan, of Merritt Island, and friend Steffani Burd of Melbourne, a statistician in computer security, holstered large knives and pistols on their hips, so they'd be ready for any python that crossed their path. The snakes can grow to more than six metres in length.
The recommended method for killing pythons is the same for killing zombies: a gunshot to the brain, or decapitation to reduce the threat.
Pythons are kind of the zombies of the Everglades, though their infestation is less deadly to humans. They have no natural predators, can eat anything in their way, can reproduce in large numbers and they don't belong there.
Florida currently prohibits possession or sale of the pythons for use as pets, and federal law bans the importation and interstate sale of the species.
Wildlife experts say pythons are just the tip of the invasive species iceberg. Florida is home to more exotic species of amphibians and reptiles than anywhere else in the world, said John Hayes, dean of research for the University of Florida's Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Roughly 2,050 pythons have been harvested in Florida since 2000, according to the conservation commission. It's unknown exactly how many are still living in the wetlands.
Officials hope the competition will help rid the Everglades of the invaders while raising awareness about the risks that exotic species pose to Florida's native wildlife.