Nearly 400 people have signed up to enter the Everglades and do battle with Burmese pythons, the giant constrictors that have emerged as the latest and weirdest threat to South Florida's wildlife.
The 2013 Python Challenge, which begins Saturday, has attracted participants and media interest from around the United States for a monthlong event that will feature prizes of $1,000 for catching the longest snakes and $1,500 for catching the most.
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."
But assuming people use caution, he said, they could kill enough of the giant snakes to help the Everglades.
"This is a very serious threat indeed," he 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," he 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, 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.
"Of course any time you do something like this people are going to have concerns," she said. "I think that overall, people understand that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with and are very supportive and understand that these actions are warranted."
Participants have signed up from 17 states. Among them is Tyler Newbolt, of Lake Worth, who is having a friend fly down from Michigan for a week of python hunting. Newbolt, 27, an experienced hunter of hog and deer, is looking forward to the chance to go after an unusual species with his .22 caliber rifle.
"It's just something fun to do," he said. "I'm definitely interested in the Everglades and the ecosystem. I'm a big advocate for the Everglades."
Bruce Moore, of Pembroke Pines, plans to bring a pistol loaded with snake shot, pellet-filled cartridges that allow a pistol or rifle to function as a mini-shotgun.
"I love the Everglades," said Moore, 47. "I think the Everglades is very important. I want to do something to make a difference. I'm not going to be reckless about it. If you run into a 15-foot python, that's a powerful animal."
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.
Burmese pythons, native to southern Asia, became established in the Everglades through the exotic pet trade. They consume small mammals, wading birds, alligators and full-grown deer. The largest one caught so far stretched 17 feet, seven inches and contained 87 eggs.
The Python Challenge starts Saturday at 10 a.m. 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. 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.
"I don't think a single event like this will be a silver bullet," he said.
The snakes will be examined, providing scientists with information on their diet, age, sex, genetics and other biological characteristics. 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, he said.
"This will give us the most complete sample that's ever been taken of pythons," he said.
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