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Florida welcomes amateurs at hunt for pythons in the Everglades

| Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, 5:54 p.m.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Nearly 400 people have signed up to enter the Everglades and do battle with Burmese pythons, the giant constrictors that have emerged as the latest and weirdest threat to South Florida's wildlife.

The 2013 Python Challenge, which begins Saturday, has attracted participants and media interest from around the United States for a monthlong event that will feature prizes of $1,000 for catching the longest snakes and $1,500 for catching the most.

Participants do not need hunting licenses, unless they're under 18, or have experience with snakes. The only required training can be done online. Given those slender requirements, some have questioned the wisdom of encouraging amateurs with firearms, particularly non-hunters, to take on pythons in the wild.

“Going out into the bush in Florida is a potentially dangerous thing to do,” said Stuart Pimm, a prominent Everglades scientist who is professor of conservation ecology at Duke University. “This is very rough terrain. Getting stuck out there without enough water could be a life-terminating experience.”

But assuming people use caution, he said, they could kill enough of the giant snakes to help the Everglades.

“This is a very serious threat indeed,” he said. “It could radically change the composition of the species that we find in the Everglades, and the Everglades have enough threats without the snakes. I think extreme measures are extremely appropriate.”

Warren Booth, assistant professor of biology at the University of Tulsa and science director of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers — which represents the reptile industry — said he saw the hunt as a potential “disaster” for people and native snakes.

“You've got venomous species, like the eastern diamondback rattlesnake and the cottonmouth,” he said. “I think we're going to see native wildlife being killed and a potential human safety issue with people being bitten.”

Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is supervising the hunt, said the commission will have extra law enforcement officers on the ground for the event and will provide training on identifying venomous snakes and avoiding harm to native wildlife.

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