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Python Challenge Offers Cash Prizes to Florida Snake Hunters

Call it the Python Challenge: That's what wildlife officials have issued to hunters in an attempt to reduce the population of Burmese pythons, which have become an invasive species in South Florida wetlands.

Jan. 12 kicks off a month of hunting giant snakes in Florida, and the winners will receive cash prizes as high as $1,500. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson Carli Segelson told ABCnews.com that the goal of the contest is both eradication and documentation.

"Our goal is to help get rid of the python from the wild, educate the public about the snake's impact on the Florida ecosystem, and inform them of what impacts non-native pets can have if allowed into the wild," Segelson said.

Florida's first ever Python Challenge takes a head-on approach to eradicating the nuisance species that has been spotted in the Sunshine State since the 1980s. In their native South Asia range, the non-venomous python can measure up to 26 feet, though the longest ever found in Florida measured 17 feet.

Interested hunters will be placed in one of two categories: permit holders, who already have permission from the state to hunt Burmese pythons and are allowed to enter special wildlife areas, and the general public.

"To keep things fair," Segelson explained.

The prizes offered to each group are the same. Contestants from the general public must be registered through the contest website.

According to Segelson, there has never been a documented Burmese python attack on a human in the Florida wild. The breeding populations, she said, are generally found in sparsely populated areas. Contestants are allowed to hunt pythons only in the state's Everglades, Big Cypress, Holey Land, and Rotenberger Wildlife Management Areas.

"The problem is with animals," Segelson said, "the pythons eat native birds, reptiles, and small mammals, many of which are threatened species."

The commission's website offers registration, safety training, rules and guidelines, and tips on how to identify Burmese pythons. The site also offers a list of ways to safely kill the snakes once they are found. Methods include use of a machete to decapitate the snake or use of a firearm.

"Whichever method they use, hunters have an ethical obligation to dispatch the snake as humanely as possible," Segelson said.

What happens to the snakes after they are killed? The official site says the specimens must be delivered to official drop-off sites no longer than 24 hours after harvesting. Researchers will gather data from the snake, including size and location where it was found, which they hope to use to better understand the biology of the Florida invaders. Officials will return snakes to interested hunters after taking measurements, and the hunters may choose to preserve the snake or its skin.

A Hollywood, Fla., company says it will buy the longest snakes from Python Challenge participants. Brian Wood runs All American Gator, a company that usually harvests wild alligators for use in clothing, accessories and furniture, and sells the products at the company's showroom.

"We intend to do all that with the python skins," Wood told ABCnews.com. "People will use salt to preserve the snakes and then sell them to us. We'll pay anywhere from $50 to $100. That's for snakes eight feet long and up."

Florida currently prohibits possession or sale of Burmese pythons for use as pets, and federal law bans the importation and interstate sale of the species.

In addition to the $1,500 prize for the hunter who bags the most pythons, $1,000 will go to whoever gets the longest specimen; in addition, a name from each category will be drawn at random and that person will receive a prize as well.

The Python Challenge will cap off with an awards ceremony Feb. 16 at Zoo Miami, where the winners will be presented their prizes and awareness events will be held for attendees to learn about invasive species and encounter live snakes. Segelson said the contest has attracted a lot of media attention and looks forward to a big turnout when all is said and done.

"We only started getting the word out this past Wednesday," Segelson said, "and we already have people registering. There was a lot of interest in Burmese pythons before and it is no surprise that people are so interested."

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