Hundreds of people have signed up from at least 17 states to shoot and kill pythons in the Florida Everglades in a month-long challenge for the chance to win varies cash prizes.
Winners in both divisions will receive $1,000 for catching the longest serpent and $1,500 for catching the greatest number of the slithering creatures.
Participants do not need hunting licenses, unless they're under 18, or have experience with snakes. The only required training can be done online.
Given those slender requirements, some have questioned the wisdom of encouraging amateurs with firearms, particularly non-hunters, to take on pythons in the wild.
"Going out into the bush in Florida is a potentially dangerous thing to do," said Stuart Pimm, a prominent Everglades scientist who is professor of conservation ecology at Duke University.
"This is very, very rough terrain. Getting stuck out there without enough water could be a life-terminating experience,"Pimm added.
But assuming people use caution, he said, they could kill enough of the giant snakes to help the Everglades.
Burmese pythons, native to southern Asia, became established in the Everglades through the exotic pet trade just over a decade ago. They have since spread like wildfire in favorable environmental conditions and with no natural predator to keep the overpopulating snake in check.
Scientists can only guess at the population of Burmese pythons in the vast expanse of the Everglades, estimating the number in the tens of thousands.
The Florida Everglades, currently two and a half square miles of animal reserve, host about 36 species that are protected by the federal government who are also put in danger of extinction due to the ever-growing problem. Pythons have been known to devour almost any wildlife animal in their reach including deer and alligators.
A record-size python, pregnant with 87 eggs was captured just last year.
"This is a very serious threat indeed," Pimm said. "It could radically change the composition of the species that we find in the Everglades, and the Everglades have enough threats without the snakes. I think extreme measures are extremely appropriate."
Warren Booth, assistant professor of biology at the University of Tulsa and science director of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, which represents the reptile industry, said he saw the hunt as a potential "disaster" for people and native snakes.
"You've got venomous species, like the eastern diamondback rattlesnake and the cottonmouth," Booth said. "I think we're going to see native wildlife being killed and a potential human safety issue with people being bitten."
Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which is supervising the hunt, said the commission will have extra law enforcement officers on the ground for the event and will provide training on identifying venomous snakes and avoiding harm to native wildlife.
The FWC's recommended killing method is a bullet or shotgun blast to the head, or the use of captive bolt, a device used in slaughterhouses that drives a metal shaft into the brain. Decapitation is considered inhumane, unless the brain is immediately destroyed, because consciousness in snakes can persist long after the head is separated from the body.
The Python Challenge starts at 10 a.m. EST Saturday with a kick-off event of training and talks on identifying and handling pythons at the University of Florida's Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center in Davie.
The hunt itself starts at 1 p.m. EST Saturday and ends at midnight Feb. 10. An awards ceremony will be held Feb. 16 at Zoo Miami.
Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida and a well-known expert on Everglades wildlife, who helped design the Python Challenge, said he understands the concerns and doesn't expect such activities alone will solve the problem.
Mazzotti said the idea came from the office of Gov. Rick Scott, who he said wanted a "market-force" approach to the python problem.
A one-month hunt won't eradicate the snakes, Mazzotti said, but it could provide valuable information about the snakes and the effectiveness of using hunters to go after them.
The snakes will be examined, providing scientists with information on their diet, age, sex, genetics and other biological characteristics.
Mazzotti says having hundreds of people looking for them at once will give a unique, simultaneous snapshot of where they are and where they may not be, with participants asked to note the location, water level, weather conditions and time of day.