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To slithereens: Inside the 'Python Challenge'

  • Volunteers sign up to hunt invasive, fast-producing snakes
  • Tens of thousands of them have wiped out species
Florida officials want people to go hunting for pythons.

A merciless predator invaded a place it doesn’t belong. It multiplies and eats almost everything that lives and breathes. And the best way to stop it is to shoot it in the head.

A horror flick script? No, it’s reality in the Everglades -- and Florida officials want people to go hunting.

The predator we are talking about is the Burmese python, an invasive snake that’s now all over the Everglades. No one is completely sure how it got there, but it’s believed that some of those creepy monsters were originally pets. They either escaped or were released by their owners, and now there's nothing stopping them -- almost literally.

The Everglades turned out to be a perfect environment for them: The pythons have almost no natural predators there, so their numbers are believed to have grown into the tens of thousands.

And keep in mind, those monsters need to eat. They can grow up to 27 feet and the vegetarian diet is not their cup of tea.

The end result is that many species are disappearing from the Everglades because they are falling prey to big snakes. The snakes are believed to have entirely wiped out rabbits and foxes. About 99% of raccoons, opossums and bobcats are believed to be gone. One python was even found with a 76-pound deer in its stomach.

The state government finally decided to do something about the python invasion. On Sunday, Florida launched the “2013 Python Challenge,” calling on everyone who is willing to take a risk to go into the 'Glades and kill as many pythons as he can, no holds barred.

There are even monetary rewards. The person who kills the most snakes will go home with $1,500, while the person who kills the longest snake will get $1,000.

"It's very difficult to find these animals and we don't really have a good strategy on how to contain this population," Linda Friar, spokeswoman for Everglades National Park, told CNN. "This is a pilot to see if it will gain public interest in areas that you can hunt so that they would be able to remove and capture these snakes."

Almost 800 volunteers from 32 states and Canada signed up on the first weekend. They got a crash course in Everglade survival and on how to actually kill the snakes.

That part is pretty simple. The state website says the two best ways to eliminate the reptiles is either to shoot them in the head or to decapitate them with a machete. Believe it or not, that’s actually the easiest on the snakes.

"We want to make sure this is done in a humane way," said Florida Wildlife Commission spokeswoman Carli Segelson. The shooting and decapitation destroys their brains and avoids unnecessary pain.

But hunting them down is not an easy feast. The largest python found in the 'Glades so far was a 17-foot monster that weighed more than 164 pounds. Those creatures can go under water and climb trees. They can cause serious injury to people, even though there have been no reported cases of wild pythons attacking anyone in Florida.

Just spotting them can be a challenge. They easily blend into the environment, which makes them hard to distinguish. HLN affiliate WTLV reports that finding one in the wilderness is like “looking for a shiny piece of camouflaged clothing.”

“You can go out there for days and days, and not see one python,” said python hunter Justin Matthews. “I don’t care how much experience you have, it is gonna take some luck,” he told the station.

Wildlife officials said killing snakes is not all that this campaign is about.

"One of things that is very important to us is to educate the public about the Burmese python and how this species is impacting the state of Florida," Segelson said.

So far there is no word how many (or if any) snakes were killed during the first few days. The free-for-all hunt lasts until February 10. The money prizes will be awarded a week later at the Miami Zoo.

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