Florida wildlife officials are launching a snake hunting mission to help curb the growing population of Burmese pythons threatening the Everglades and nearby neighborhoods.
Nearly 500 amateur hunters have signed up for the month-long competition in southern Florida sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The "2013 Python Challenge" will kick off Jan. 12 in hopes to raise public awareness about the species and the threat to the Everglades ecosystem, including native wildlife.
Some estimate that nearly 150,000 pythons are living in the Florida Everglades. Officials say the Burmese pythons are eating wildlife and with no natural predator, the population is overwhelming. The Everglades have become crowded with the snakes and the pythons have started to move into nearby neighborhoods.
"They're starting to come back into civilization looking for easy food -- our pets and that's typically what they're feeding on: Cats, small dogs," said Lt. Scott Mullin of the Miami-Dade Venom One Unit.
Mullin, a snake wrangler, says he's been busy making house calls as people are finding Burmese pythons in parks and backyards.
"When people call about a python it's a totally different sound on the phone that you can hear it in their voice that they're excited, very nervous, very scared for their pets and their children," Mullin said.
Pythons are native to Southeast Asia, but experts think that residents who couldn't handle them as pets set them loose.
Last year, a Burmese python was caught and registered more than 17 feet long and 160 pounds. The catch set a new Everglades National Park record.
Burmese pythons caught in Florida usually average between 6 to 9 feet long.
A $1,500 reward will be handed over to the hunter who catches the most Burmese pythons. A $1,000 reward will be given to the person who catches the longest.
All participants must take an online training course. Registered participants over the age of 18 do not need a Florida hunting license or permit. However, those under age 18 need to have a Florida hunting license and management area permit.
Nat Geo Wild biologist Shawn Heflick thinks the vast majority of hunters will simply find alligators and mosquitoes instead.
"The chance of you seeing a python is remote. Participants…have to go out into everglades into the muck and get dirty," he said.
Florida prohibits the possession or sale of pythons and a federal law signed last year bans the importation and interstate sale of the snake.
The contest concludes on Feb. 16 with an awards ceremony.