For as little as $25, licensed python hunters are now wading through a million acres of swamp in the Florida Everglades in the search of one of the world’s largest snakes. More than 600 hunters from 24 different states have registered for the 2016 Python Challenge, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is encouraging more to sign up before the hunt ends on February 14. According to the Python Challenge’s official website, 17 snakes have been harvested since the hunt started on Saturday.
“Oh, we’re so pumped! It’s like a month-long frenzy and we’re just ready to get in the action and get some of it!” hunter Dusty Crum told Fox News.
Hunting with friends and his beagle, Crum is one of the many hunters vying for the cash prizes offered by the FWC for the most—or biggest—pythons harvested during the challenge. For many however, cash is not the reason that they spend days trekking through the Everglades sawgrass. The Burmese python is a highly invasive species that is destabilizing the wetlands, and the challenge is one of the only times hunters are allowed inside the Everglades to hunt the elusive snakes.
Florida’s last python challenge was held in 2013, when 1,600 hunters showed up to try their hand at snake wrangling. In the end, only 68 snakes were killed or captured. The FWC said at the time that the challenge was a success in promoting awareness regarding the invasive species, but the relatively low number of snakes caught was likely due to a lack of experience in hunting this rarely-seen snake. This year officials refocused on training and offered classes on how to effectively locate and remove or euthanize pythons.
“Burmese pythons, though large when fully grown, are notoriously difficult to find,” stated the FWC. “The color and pattern of a python’s skin is designed to help it blend in with surrounding vegetation, allowing this powerful ambush predator to remain virtually undetected when potential prey animals are near.”
Hunters who participated in the 2013 Python Challenge could attest to how difficult it was to find one of the snakes, but that did not stop them from returning for a second try. Bill Booth, a veteran snake hunter from Tampa, said it took his team of seasoned hunters a full week before even spotting one of the snakes. Eventually they bagged six and took home second place in the 2013 competition.
Learn more about searching for pythons in this video:
Booth, who grew up near the Everglades, said that other wildlife were even harder to find than the snakes. He attributed this to the python’s voracious appetite.
“The thing is, you don’t see anything. It’s like a wasteland out there,” Bill Booth told NPR “I think in the 30 days that we spent on the last python challenge, I think we saw maybe one or two otters in 30 days. And rabbits and stuff like that, they’re just not around.”
Adult Burmese pythons can grow up to 17 feet in length and weigh over 160 pounds. In their native range, their diet consists primarily of rats and other small animals, but in Florida, the large reptiles eat whatever they can catch. Burmese pythons have been known to consume small alligators and deer.