BIG CYPRESS NATIONAL PRESERVE, Fla. – An armed mob set out into the Florida Everglades on Saturday to flush out a scaly invader.
It sounds like the second act of a sci-fi horror flick but, really, it’s pretty much Florida’s plan for dealing with an infestation of Burmese pythons that are eating their way through a fragile ecosystem.
Nearly 800 people signed up for the monthlong “Python Challenge” that started Saturday. The vast majority – 749 – are members of the general public who lack the permits usually required to harvest pythons on public lands.
“We feel like anybody can get out in the Everglades and figure out how to try and find these things,” said Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “It’s very safe, getting out in the Everglades. People do it all the time.”
Twenty-eight python permit holders also joined the hunt at various locations in the Everglades. The state is offering cash prizes to whoever brings in the longest python and whoever bags the most pythons by the time the competition ends at midnight Feb. 10.
Dozens of would-be python hunters showed up for some last-minute training in snake handling Saturday morning at the University of Florida Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center in Davie.
The training came down to common sense: Drink water, wear sunscreen, don’t get bitten by anything and don’t shoot anyone.
Wildlife experts say pythons are just the tip of the invasive species iceberg. Florida is home to more exotic species of amphibians and reptiles than anywhere else in the world, said John Hayes, dean of research for the University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Roughly 2,050 pythons have been harvested in Florida since 2000, according to the conservation commission. It’s unknown exactly how many are slithering through the wetlands.
Officials hope the competition will help rid the Everglades of the invaders while raising awareness about the risks that exotic species pose to Florida’s native wildlife.
Florida currently prohibits possession or sale of the pythons for use as pets, and federal law bans the importation and interstate sale of the species.