A python hunting competition starting on Saturday is drawing hundreds of amateurs armed with clubs, machetes and guns to the Florida Everglades, where captured Burmese pythons have exceeded the length of minivans and weighed as much as grown men.
Python Challenge 2013, a month-long event sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is open to hunters and non-hunters alike.
Participants pay a $25 entry fee and take an online training course, which consists mostly of looking at photographs of both the targeted pythons and protected native snakes to learn the difference.
The state wildlife agency is offering prizes of $1,500 for the most pythons captured and $1,000 for the longest python.
FWC spokeswoman Carli Segelson said the number of registered contestants reached about 500 this week and was growing, with people coming from 32 states.
The stated goal of the competition is to raise awareness of the threat Burmese pythons pose to the Everglades ecosystem. The snakes are native to Southeast Asia and have no known predators in Florida.
The contest also serves as a pilot program to determine whether regular hunting competitions can cull the growing population of the invasive species, said Frank Mazzotti, a wildlife expert from the University of Florida who helped create the competition.
Python Challenge rules require contestants to kill specimens on the spot in a humane fashion, recommending shooting the snakes precisely through the brain.