This year’s Challenge ran from Jan. 16 to Feb. 14 and is similar to hunts carried out in other states against problem species, such as Texas' campaign against feral hogs, widely blamed for agricultural and topography damage. Michigan targets the invasive Asian carp fish while nearby Ohio is fighting against the Zebra Muscle.
There are no exact numbers on how many Burmese pythons are in Florida since they hide extremely well and are difficult to detect but according to Carli Segelson of Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Division, they “run into the thousands at least.”
The Python Challenge hunt is just one way that state officials are using to try and address the rapid spread of Pythons in the wild. State and federal biologists and wildlife experts are studying the reptiles looking for ways to eradicate the species from the wild to protect native mammals, birds and reptiles in the Everglades and other wetlands in Florida. So far they have been unable to check the rapid population growth of the species which seems to have found a desirable and suitable habitat in semi-tropical southern Florida.
Burmese pythons are native to Asia and found their way into Florida originally as pets but some escaped and others were turned loose by owners as they grew too large to keep. Many of them found their way into the swampy lands that mirrored their native habitats and they have quickly reproduced.
This past Saturday, officials honored the Python Challenge's top hunters, at a ceremony in Davie, Florida. Bill Booth and his team won the grand prize of $5,000 by removing 33 snakes, including the 5-footer, which weighed in at 125 pounds (56.7 kg), wildlife officials said.
The state trains participants in snake capturing methods by showing how to pin their heads to the ground with a hook, grab their bodies and bag them.
"We fought this thing for 20 minutes and I didn't think we were going to get it out of there," Booth, speaking at the ceremony, said of his team's largest snake. "But we had to get it out alive for the challenge and that's what we did."
All the snakes caught in the challenge were eventually killed and many, as shown in the accompanying photo, wind up used for their prized, colorful snakeskin. Many areas of the state requires the snakes to be “turned in live,” Segelson said.
“We take them alive but then we kill them by driving a bolt into their brains,” said Segleson.
The 106 pythons hunters caught this year is almost double the number taken in the last sponsored hunt in 2013 when 68 reptiles were taken,” Segelson added.
“We haven’t decided if we will have a Python Challenge next year but state officials will continue to encourage the killing of pythons apart from the competition,” she said.