Burmese Python Hunt in Florida Will See Hundreds of Invasive Snakes Killed

Florida's annual Burmese python hunt is set to commence next week. But what does the event involve and what is the aim behind it?

The goal of the hunt, which is managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), is to raise public awareness about Burmese pythons—an invasive species in the state—and remove these snakes from the ecosystem.

Burmese pythons are large snakes native to parts of Southeast Asia that have now become established in South Florida, primarily in the Everglades, as a hugely successful invasive species.

The non-venomous, constrictor snakes—which can grow to around 20 feet in length (with the Florida record being 18 feet, 9 inches)—were introduced to the state in the 1970s and 1980s when thousands of specimens were imported to be sold as exotic pets.

Some of these snakes found their way into Florida's ecosystem—either after being released intentionally or accidentally by their owners. Eventually, they began to breed, establishing a population in the south of the state where the local environment is suitable for them.

The pythons now pose a significant threat to native wildlife because they prey upon many bird and mammal species, including some that are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In fact, severe declines in some small mammal populations in Florida have been linked to the invasive pythons.

While it is almost impossible to estimate the size of the Burmese python population in Florida because they are so hard to detect, experts say there are likely tens of thousands in the state, perhaps up to 100,000 or potentially even more, given the number that have been removed—around 16,000, according to the FWC.

What is the Florida Python Challenge?

The Florida Python Challenge is a 10-day competition that engages participants to remove as many Burmese pythons from Florida's public lands as possible, the FWC said.

"Every python removed from the environment helps to protect native wildlife and habitats," Lisa Thompson, a spokesperson for the FWC, told Newsweek.

The first challenge was held in 2013 when around 1,000 participants only managed to capture or kill 68 snakes. Over the course of the 2021 edition, more than 600 participants removed 223 Burmese pythons—more than double the number recorded in 2020.

This year, the removal competition begins at 8:00 a.m. on August 5, 2022, and ends at 5 p.m. on August 14, 2022. Anyone can participate in the competition, but they must register first, pay a fee of $25, and pass the required online training.

Those under the age of 18 can also take part, but their parent or legal guardian must complete the registration for them and they must also be accompanied by a registered adult while participating in the competition.

Participants in the event are challenged with capturing and killing Burmese pythons, which must then be dropped off at an official event check station. There is an ethical and legal obligation to ensure the pythons are killed in a way that minimizes suffering, according to the FWC.

Pythons that are not killed in the correct way—the FWC provides guidelines on the best way to achieve this—will be disqualified from the competition.

A Burmese python in the Everglades
A Burmese python in the Florida Everglades. The annual Florida Python Challenge is set to begin next month. FWC/Andy Wraithmell

Several prizes will be awarded for "Professional" and "Novice" categories. These prizes include awards for individuals who catch the most pythons ($2,500 for first place, $750 for second place) and the longest pythons ($1,500 for first place, $750 for second place). There are also additional categories for active duty military personnel and veterans participating in the competition.

The Florida Python Challenge is just one aspect of the FWC's strategy for removing and managing Burmese pythons in the state

"The FWC works closely with our partners to ensure this invasive species continues to be a high priority to remove from Florida," Thompson said. "The FWC's Wildlife Impact Management Section and partner organizations take aggressive measures to control the Burmese python populations in multiple ways."

These efforts include employing contracted teams that are paid to remove pythons from public lands throughout the year, asking the public to report sightings of Burmese pythons, and providing Exotic Pet Amnesty Days at locations around the state where people can turn in non-native pets without penalty as an alternative to releasing them into the environment.

In addition, the FWC encourages members of the public to remove and kill pythons whenever possible on private lands, using the correct methods. This can be done without a permit or hunting license, as long as you have permission from the landowner.

While the chances of eradicating Burmese pythons from the Florida environment at this point are very low given how established they are, the aim of control efforts like these is to manage the population.

"There are no landscape-level control tools for pythons available now, but federal, state, local, tribal, and non-governmental partners are working together to leverage existing efforts and invest in developing tools that improve control," Bryan Falk, a program analyst with the National Invasive Species Council, told Newsweek.

"With these partnerships and smart investments, the goal is to suppress the invasive python population and reduce the negative impacts of pythons to Florida ecosystems."