Florida’s “Python Challenge,” which runs from August 5-14, will lead to the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of the snakes but it will do little to dent the population of the invasive species, an expert said.
“The presence of invasive pythons in the Everglades has been ecologically disastrous and must be addressed. Hunting helps, but it may just reach the tip of the iceberg,” Dale R. Jackson, a senior research zoologist at Florida State University, told Newsweek,
Burmese pythons are an invasive species in the Everglades. Native to southeast Asia, Burmese pythons are thought to have exploded in population in the US due to being brought over by the pet trade in the late 1990s, and due to having no predators, quickly multiplying thanks to their large clutches of up to 100 eggs . They can potentially grow up to 23 feet long.
The exact population of Burmese pythons in Florida is unknown, but there are thought to be over 100,000 in the state.
These pythons outcompete native wildlife for food, which has led to decreases in native mammal populations in the Everglades. They are still classified as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, however.
One 2012 study showed that since 1997, around the time that the python population began to rapidly increase, the number of raccoons dropped by 99.3 percent, opossums by 98.9 percent, with the population numbers of cottontail rabbits, and foxes also drastically decreasing. These animals are also regularly found inside the stomachs of captured Burmese pythons.
Wildlife control teams have found it difficult to capture the pythons, with alternative methods of dogs, traps and biocontrol also falling short. Pythons can legally be humanely killed on private lands at any time, with no permit or hunting license required.
The Python Challenge was set up in 2013 as an annual event to help boost the removal of Burmese pythons in Florida. The 10-day event sees participants kill as many pythons as possible, with cash prizes for those who catch the most, biggest and longest snakes.
“These pythons are a threat to the Everglades,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said in a press conference announcing the 2022 Python Challenge. “Let’s reel in some pythons.”
In 2021, over 600 people participated, with the winner of the $2,500 prize for the largest number of catches taking home 223 pythons, and the catcher of the longest snake, a gargantuan 15 feet long, bagging a $1,500 prize.
The snakes must be killed humanely. This is defined by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as resulting in the python losing consciousness immediately, followed by destroying the python’s brain by ‘pithing’. Attendees must complete an online training course to enter the competition and this method is taught as part of it.
“The Everglades is one of the world’s most prized natural resources, and we have invested record funding for Everglades restoration projects, including record funding for the removal of invasive Burmese pythons which wreak havoc on the ecosystem,” DeSantis said in a news release. “Because of this focus, we have removed record numbers of invasive pythons from the Everglades. I am proud of the progress we’ve made, and I look forward to seeing the results of this year’s Python Challenge.”
The humane killing of the pythons is important, with the rules of the challenge clearly stating that “you will be disqualified from the competition if you are found to have inhumanely killed a python or if you have killed a native snake.”
The Python Challenge suggests using either penetrating captive bolt stunners or pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) air guns to render the python unconscious. The use of firearms is prohibited during the 2022 competition. After losing consciousness, the python’s brain is destroyed by inserting a rigid metal tool into the head cavity and moving it around to destroy the entire brain.
According to PETA, veterinary experts have warned that “there’s no humane way for laypersons to decapitate and destroy the brain of a snake in the field.”
Newsweek has reached out to DeSantis for comment.