(CNN) — The Burmese python, one of the largest snakes in the world, is running amok in Florida.
Well, more like slithering amok.
So much so that on Saturday, state officials kick off a month-long competition designed to remove as many of the colossal constrictors from the Everglades as possible.
More than 600 people have signed up for the Python Challenge, according to Carli Segelson, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which organized the event.
A cash prize goes to the hunter who captures — dead or alive — the most Burmese pythons, as well as one for the longest one.
Why? Because the Burmese python, which can be as large as 23 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds, doesn’t belong in the Everglades, in Florida — or even in this hemisphere. for that matter.The native Southeast Asian snake is “wreaking havoc on one of America’s most beautiful, treasured and naturally bountiful ecosystems,” U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt said of the 1.5-million-acre Everglades National Park in a 2012 report. “Right now, the only hope to halt further python invasion into new areas is swift, decisive and deliberate human action.”
But that is no easy feat; the unwelcome guests are thriving in the habitat and climate provided by the Everglades.
“Even though it seems like such a large snake would be easy to find or see, only a very small fraction of pythons present in the park are ever detected,” the USGS says on its website. “Their cryptic coloration; hide, wait, and then ambush behavior; the dense low vegetation that helps conceal them; and seasonal inundation of the landscape, (are) limiting human access.”
Just how hard are they to find? In the inaugural Python Challenge in 2013, 1,600 hunters could only produce 68 of them. In fact, the Burmese python is so hard to detect, Segelson said there are no reliable estimates as to how many of them there actually are in Florida — but they’ve been a long-simmering problem for the state.
Once allowed as an exotic pet, officials trace the Burmese python’s entry into the ecosystem to 1992, when “Burmese pythons escaped from a breeding facility that was destroyed during Hurricane Andrew,” according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s website. “It is also likely that pet pythons have been released in and around the Everglades,” it says.The effect has been profound; the invasive species is responsible for causing the near “complete disappearance of raccoons, rabbits and opossums,” according to the USGS, and goes almost completely unchecked in its environment.
The Burmese python has only two natural predators; one of them, the American alligator, is dubbed the “king of the Everglades” by the National Park Service. Beginning Saturday, 600 of the other natural predators species will spend the next month hoping to bring in big snakes, and take home the grand prize.