MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Florida's annual Python Challenge got underway Friday.
For the next ten days, snake hunters of all ages and experience will be roaming through the Everglades in search of Burmese pythons. The snake is an invasive species and has been damaging Florida's eco-system for years.
Hunters will be getting prizes ranging from ATVs to cash for the longest and the heaviest pythons.
State and local leaders joined the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the South Florida Water Management District, and Miami Super Bowl Host Committee in kicking off the Florida Python Challenge 2020 Python Bowl at Markham Park in Sunrise.
It is a one-of-a-kind competition that supports the extraordinary and delicate Everglades ecosystem.
Kristen Sommers, a wildlife impact manager for the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said officials understand the number of pythons caught during the contest won't even make a dent in the population, which might exceed 100,000. But the goal is to raise the public's awareness of the problem.
"We hope we can minimize the python's impact until some time in the future when some sort of silver bullet will be available," she said.
At Friday's kickoff event, commission biologist Robert Edman cleared a 25-foot circle and then brought out a white bag, dumping a 12-foot female python onto the ground.
Each adult female lays between 60 and 100 eggs per year. Once the snakes reach adulthood in about five years they have no Florida predators besides armed humans and the occasional sawgrass death match with an adult alligator.
Demonstrating proper hunting technique, Edman poked at the tan-and-black spotted snake with a metal rod to make it uncoil. He then crept behind it to avoid its fangs, which can inflict a painful but not deadly bite. Pythons wrap around their prey and squeeze it to death.
Edman then used a hook on the end of the rod to clamp down at the base of the snake's skull and pin it in place, using his knee to pin its body. He didn't kill it, but during an actual hunt, the snake would then be dispatched with a bolt gun or bullet to the brain or by decapitation.
Python trapper Tom Rahill said the next 10 days might make for a slow hunt because of the moderate expected temperature range of 70 to 80 degrees. Pythons are more likely to leave the brush and water and go into the open when it is especially hot or cold.
One advantage is that it is mating season, so males will travel for miles if they smell an eager female in the distance, said Rahill, who helps run Swamp Apes, an organization that assists military veterans cope with combat trauma by teaching them python hunting.
Rahill, who has caught almost 800 pythons, said the key to success is persistence: Every eight hours of hunting averages one snake caught. It takes a keen eye, looking for a telltale glistening under the water or in the bush during the day or staking out levees at night, waiting for one to appear.
"It is a certain amount of luck, but it is being in the the right place at the right time," he said.
Burmese pythons are an invasive species in and around the Everglades. Scientists say they have eliminated 99-percent of the native mammals in the Everglades, decimating food sources for native predators such as panthers and alligators. Native populations of bobcats, opossums, raccoons, foxes and rabbits have been devastated.
Go to FLPythonChallenge.org for more information.
The Florida Python Challenge 2020 Python Bowl runs through January 19th.
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