The 2013 Python Challenge kicked off Saturday, drawing people from all across Florida and at least 30 other states.
Hundreds of people so far have signed up for the monthlong event, which calls for hunting down Burmese pythons in the Everglades. Prizes of up to $1,500 are being offered.
Those willing to take the challenge will have until Feb. 10 to find the nonvenomous constrictors, which can grow to more than 17 feet in the wild, according to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The agency is presenting the event for the first time this year.
Saturday’s kickoff provided participants with instructions and demonstrations, the do's and don'ts of hunting and safely handling the snakes.
The invasive Burmese pythons compete for food and prey on other animals, causing trouble locally, experts say.
They have been “putting a lot of pressure on our native wildlife, which is already under pressure from lack of water, climate change and habitat destruction,” said Kristina Serbesoff-King, of the Nature Conservancy, an organization that aims to protect ecologically important lands and waters. “So this is like sort of kicking them while they’re down."
It's unclear how many Burmese pythons are in Florida, but wildlife experts say they’re certain the population is on the rise.
Largest Florida Burmese Python Caught in Everglades
The challenge presents several benefits, said FWC spokesman Jorge Pino. It’s a way to get help controlling the snake: If the nearly 1,000 challengers each catch at least one python, that’s still a significant population reduction.
A second benefit “is gathering as much biological information as we can from these snakes: What's in their systems? What are they eating? Where are they congregating? All those things are going to be very important for us to know,” Pino said.
The third part is to getting the message out: Letting people know how important it is for them to be responsible pet owners. “We don't want people to release these animals into the wild anymore,” he said.
Jeff Singleton, a recreational snake hunter, said: "I used to go out as a kid and never saw a python.”
He said the challenge was “a good way” of catching many snakes.
“I don't think a lot of people are going to be able to catch them,” he said. “But maybe locate where they're at so professionals can go out and actually get 'em.”
Those interested in participating in the challenge can learn more details at pythonchallenge.org.