The state of Florida is set to open its second Python Challenge, which is a public hunt in the Everglades that aims to kill off as many of the invasive snakes as possible.
The first Burmese python hunt was held in 2013 and attracted almost 1,600 participants. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, one of the organizers of the challenge, 68 snakes were removed from swamp ecosystem.
The four week hunt is scheduled for January of 2016, and will award cash prizes to participants who collect the most snakes the longest snake. It costs $25.00 to register and participants must complete an online course.
The large non-native snakes are believed to have been part of the pet trade, which either escaped or were deliberately released. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says it began receiving reports about the snakes in the wild in the 1980s. Today, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there are between 5,000 and 100,000 snakes in the Everglades.
The snakes not only compete with alligators to be the top predator in the swamps, but they may have contributed to the decline of a number of other species native to the Everglades. In the recent years, the population of bobcats, opossums and raccoons in the area has dropped dramatically.
Although the snakes are difficult to track and kill for amateur hunters, state officials told The Washington Post that the hunt helps raise awareness about the problem of invasive species and hopefully deters pet owners from setting their animals free. The culled snakes were studied by biologists at the University of Florida.
But the hunt also has its critics. In a 2013 opinion piece published in National Geographic, reptile expert Bryan Christy wrote that the hunt “tells a new generation of children that the only good snake is a dead one.” PETA launched a protest of the 2013 hunt over the beheading of the snakes.
However, this time participants in the Python Challenge are allowed to collect and transport living snakes (the most successful trackers previously caught the snakes with their bare hands), in addition to dead ones. The live snakes will likely be much more for valuable for researchers, and there's good reason to study the python when and where we can.
That's because elsewhere in the world, this species is in decline. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), not only are these snakes losing habitat, but they are also hunted for their skin and for ingredients in traditional medicines. In Vietnam the population of Burmese pythons dropped by 80 percent in 10 years, while in mainland China the population declined by 90 percent. The IUCN classifies this species as “vulnerable,” just one step away from “endangered.”
So perhaps the saddest part of the story is that while Burmese pythons have flourished in South Florida, the population of these snakes in their native Southeast Asia is being destroyed.