DAVIE, Fla. (WFOR) – A deadly Everglades invader, the Burmese python, is under siege for the next month in Florida.
An initiative to eradicate Burmese pythons, which began Saturday, attracted nearly 800 people to hunt the invasive species on public lands.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s “Python Challenge,” which is offering cash prizes to whoever brings in the longest python and whoever bags the most pythons, marks the first time the public is joining licensed hunters in the search for the invasive snake. [READ MORE: Florida wildlife officials introduce python killing challenge]
Twenty-eight python permit holders and 749 members of the public signed up for the challenge, state wildlife officials said at its event Saturday at the University of Florida Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center in Davie.
Hunters from more than 30 states will need to harvest the well-camouflaged Burmese python, which can grow to more than 17 feet long in the wild in Florida. Competitors can win prizes of up to $1,500, the commission said. The hunt ends at midnight Feb. 10.
[READ MORE: PETA has warning for Burmese python hunters]
The Burmese python is an invasive species that experts say is decimating native wildlife in the Florida Everglades. Florida currently prohibits possession or sale of the pythons for use as pets. Federal law bans the importation and interstate sale of the species.
For the first time, the public is joining licensed hunters in the search for the snakes as officials hope the competition will help rid the Everglades of the invaders.
Over 2,000 pythons have been harvested in Florida since 2000, the commission said.
Burmese pythons are considered one of the largest snakes in the world. And some experts believe the massive creatures are endangering the Florida Everglades’ delicate ecosystem. [READ MORE: Florida wildlife officials introduce python killing challenge]
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In fact, a 17-foot snake was found dead after it burst open trying to eat a huge alligator at Everglades National Park eight years ago.
As a result, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission is holding the “Python Challenge” as a way for hunters to reduce the population of the non-native species.
“The Burmese python has been able to establish a breeding population in the Everglades ecosystem,” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Carli Segelson said. “This is something we feel is important that we get out there and we control and manage.”
More than 500 people have signed up and paid the $25 fee for the month-long hunt.
But a spokeswoman for PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is sounding the alarm about the way some of the snake have been killed.
In a letter to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, PETA urged hunters to not behead the animals, but follow procedures that ensure the animal will not suffer.
“Reptiles have slow metabolisms which means that when they are beheaded they can suffer up to an hour before they actually die,” PETA’s Ashley Byrn said. “So PETA is asking if this hunt is to going forward that they limit the ways pythons can be killed to ways where the brain is destroyed immediately so that they do not suffer.”
However, Segelson said their website explains to hunters the preferred ways to kill the snakes: from captive bolt guns and higher caliber firearms.
“And that’s why we have right in our rules that people would need to ethically and humanely dispatch these snakes so there is no animal cruelty,” Segelson said.