Florida issues a call to arms to help remove invasive pythons

Florida is the only state in the U.S. to have a significant invasive snake problem. In fact, parts of the Sunshine State are overrun with Burmese pythons, among the world’s largest snakes, which are a threat to native wildlife, pets, and even small children.

It’s a problem with no obvious solution, but wildlife officials are getting creative and this week announced the “2013 Python Challenge,” a first-of-its-kind competition for hunters to determine who can harvest the most and longest Burmese pythons.

In other words, next month’s 30-day contest will be an all-out assault on a species of snake that can grow to about 25 feet (the longest ever captured in Florida measured 17 feet, 7 inches), and one that preys on small mammals, birds, and even small alligators.

Burmese pythons, which are native to India, China, and the Malay Peninsula, have been in Florida at least since the 1980s, having most likely been introduced by people who had owned them as pets.

Though the invasive reptiles can no longer be acquired as pets in Florida, and though it’s illegal for them to be transported across state lines, pythons are prolific breeders and are already well-established in south Florida, especially within Everglades National Park.

Various officials display a Burmese python in Florida, during a recent news conference. Credit Carli Segelson

These snakes are masters of camouflage and excellent swimmers and climbers, making them difficult to find and capture. Thus, the call for hunters, armed with firearms and machetes, to fan out within designated areas and hopefully make a dent in the python population.

“The FWC is encouraging the public to get involved in helping us remove Burmese pythons from public lands in south Florida,” said Kristen Sommers, head of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission‘s Exotic Species Coordination Section. “By enlisting both the public and Florida’s python [hunting] permit holders in a month-long competitive harvesting of Burmese pythons, we hope to motivate more people to find and harvest these large, invasive snakes.”

Grand prizes of $1,500 are being offered to the persons who harvest the most pythons in a competition for the general public (hunters must register and receive a permit) and established permit holders. Additional prizes of $1,000 will be awarded to hunters who bag the longest python in both categories.

There are a few caveats: Hunters must be at least 18; they must complete a brief online training process before registering; and sign a waiver of liability during registration.

Additionally, they must agree to dispatch the snakes in the most humane manner possible, and to target only Burmese pythons.

The invasive snake issue is so serious that several partners have become involved in the Python Challenge as both a culling effort and an awareness campaign, including the University of Florida, The Nature Conservancy, and Zoo Miami.

The competition kicks off Jan. 12 at the University of Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, and concludes Feb. 16 with an awards ceremony at Zoo Miami.