TALLAHASSEE - A flourishing population of Burmese pythons in South Florida is devouring animals such as bobcats and opossums, and threatening endangered species. So the state devised a solution: offer cash for hunters to kill them.
More than 550 hunters from 30 states have signed up for a contest called the "Python Challenge," which begins Saturday and offers $5,000 in prize money for those who slay the longest and largest number of the invasive snakes. They'll troll 1.3 million acres (526,091 hectares), including part of the Everglades National Park, looking for snakes that the state says threaten the ecosystem and native wildlife.
"It sounds like a fun thing to do," said Adam Danker- Feldman, 24, a New York financial analyst who said he's never hunted and signed up based on a friend's suggestion. "He said, 'Book your tickets, this is going to be an adventure.'"
Burmese pythons, native to Southeast Asia, eat endangered animals in and around the Everglades, including the Key Largo woodrat, a brown and white rodent with a hairy tail found only in the Florida Keys.
Federal, state and local governments have spent more than $6 million in Florida since 2005 trying to control pythons and other invasive constrictor snakes, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
There are an estimated 30,000 pythons in the Florida Everglades, according the National Park Service website. Since 1995, the number that have been observed in the Everglades has "increased dramatically," according to the park service.
In 2010, Florida banned Burmese pythons from being acquired as pets. Last year, the Obama administration banned the snakes from being imported or sold across state lines.
The pythons are among 137 invasive species of reptiles and amphibians in Florida, the most in the world, according to a 2011 study by Kenneth Krysko, herpetology collection manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. Officials at the Everglades National Park this year found a 17-foot, 7- inch (5.4 meter) Burmese python with 87 eggs, both records.
The contest, which ends on Feb. 10, may provide useful data for scientists at the state Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission to show where the snakes, which usually grow between 6 and 9 feet, are living and what they're eating. That information can help with future removal programs, said Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the conservation commission, which is running the event.
Greg Graziani, who runs his own reptile breeding facility in Venus, and hosted National Geographic's TV program "Python Hunters," said it takes an average of 92 hours to hunt one python outside of the hatching season in August and September. Graziani, who helped start a park program in 2009 that trains volunteers to capture live pythons, said it can be difficult to hunt the snakes. Hunters in Florida have killed fewer than five pythons in recent years, he said.
"We've done demonstrations where we'll take a 12-foot snake and set it in some brush that's no more than ankle-high and you can be three, four feet away and never see the animal," he said.
Florida is the latest state to offer cash for killing animals. Chippewa County, Minn., renewed a program last year for the first time since 1965 offering hunters $10 per coyote. In Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a law in March increasing state bounties to $50, up from $20, for coyote ears. Hunters get $2 for wild pig tails in Caldwell County, Texas.
There has been no documented cases of wild pythons injuring humans, unlike domestic snakes, Segelson said. An Orlando-area couple, Charles Jason Darnell and Jaren Hare, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2011 when their 8-foot Burmese python escaped its cage and strangled Hare's sleeping 2-year-old daughter.
Elise Traub, director of wildlife protection for the Washington-based Humane Society, which describes itself as the nation's largest animal protection group, said the contest won't help control the snake population.
"Killing contests are ineffective and send the wrong message about wildlife management," Traub said.
The Florida contest is open to anyone who pays a $25 registration fee, signs a waiver of liability and reads a 36- page document that advises hunters to look for snakes basking in the morning sun along canal banks. The prize money comes from the fees and sponsors.
Graham Rogers, 24, who convinced Danker-Feldman to sign-up, said he got some tips from rattlesnake hunters in Kentucky, where he grew up. Rogers, a New York University law school student who last hunted about a decade ago, said he'll camp in the area when he's not pursuing snakes.
"A python is fairly dangerous," Rogers said. "There's definitely a turn-on about hunting something carnivorous that could, in theory, eat you."