Hunters across Florida are gearing up for a new challenge with unusual encouragement. In response to proliferation of the invasive Burmese python across the rural Everglades region, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has organized the 2013 Python Challenge.
The purpose of this competition is to encourage responsible culling of an over-populated species that is harming native wildlife. This non-venomous constrictor, which can grow to over 15 feet and 150 pounds, was first spotted in the Everglades in 1979. Originally arriving as unwanted or escaped pets, the Burmese python quickly thrived in Florida's humid, swampy conditions. Lacking natural predators, tens of thousands of these Southeast Asian snakes are estimated to live throughout rural southern Florida.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has banned importing of Burmese pythons, but those already reproducing in Florida's swamps have become destructive. Studies reveal that populations of local wildlife, such as raccoons, rabbits, and bobcats, have decreased alarmingly in areas where the snake has propagated. Additionally, the ever-hungry giant can even attack larger prey, including deer and alligators.
It is hoped that the Python Challenge will generate interest to benefit Florida's precarious ecosystem and over 400 hunters from 17 states have signed up for the challenge. The FWC asks that snakes be killed humanely, with a shot to the head or decapitation from a machete being recommended means of demise. Participants are required to keep data on the capture and harvested pythons must be dropped off at official FWC location within 24 hours.
The unique competition kicks off at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 12, with an event at the University of Florida Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center in Davie. Providing further incentive, the month-long contest will award a top prize of $1,500 to the hunter collecting the most pythons, while $1,000 will be given for the longest specimen and an additional prize will go to a randomly selected entrant.
In order to eligible, participants must pay a $25 registration fee and complete online training on detection and safety. Full entrance in the Python Challenge is limited to those over 18 years of age and waives the necessity of a hunter's license and WMA permit until the competition's conclusion on February 10.
Former pets and road kill are not eligible, as all snakes must be taken from four designated areas. Covering millions of acres of protected land, the territory includes the Everglades Wildlife Management Area, Holey Land WMA, Rotenberger WMA, and the Big Cypress WMA. While the majority of the hunting grounds lies near the east coast, the Big Cypress preserve is composed of large chunks of rural Collier County.
The drop-off location for Southwest Florida is the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, located at 1450 Merrihue Drive in Naples. The facility will be open daily for drop-offs from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and hunters wishing to keeping skins of their snakes can indicate at the time of delivery.
In a ceremony at Zoo Miami on February 16, the FWC will announce the winners and full results at the 2013 Python Challenge Awareness and Awards Event. Visitors will have the opportunity to view the snakes up close and learn from biologists what the new data reveals about the population and behavior of Florida's Burmese pythons.
For further information, visit the FWC's website for the 2013 Python Challenge.