21 pythons killed in US contest

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iol news pic Python challenge REUTERS A previously captured 13-foot Burmese python is held by Capt. Shawn Meiman for the press to view before U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) took part in a state-sponsored snake hunt, in the Everglades, Florida January 17, 2013. Python Challenge 2013 is a month-long event sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission offering prizes of $1,500 for the most pythons captured and $1,000 for the longest python. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

Florida Everglades - The man known as “Alligator Ron” has a lifetime of experience in the Florida Everglades, a fleet of airboats at his disposal and knows the habitats of furry prey for large reptiles. He still couldn't lead a pack of hunters to a single Burmese python.

That's the catch in Florida's “Python Challenge”: Even experienced hunters with special permits to regularly stalk the exotic snake through Florida's swamplands are having trouble finding them for a state-sponsored competition.

“When these snakes are in the water, in the vegetation, they blend in naturally to where you can't hardly see them,” said state wildlife commissioner Ron Bergeron, whose nickname is emblazoned on the rudder of his black airboat, over the image of him riding an alligator.

The vast majority of roughly 1 000 people who signed up to hunt Burmese pythons on public lands from January 12 through February 10 are amateurs when it comes to pythons. Only about 30 hold permits for harvesting pythons throughout the year.

The permit holders might have a slight edge when it comes to handling snakes, but the tan, splotchy pythons have natural camouflage that gives them an important advantage in the ecosystem they have invaded.

As of Thursday, 21 pythons had been killed for the contest, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

iol news pic Python Challenge~1 TV crews pet and take photos as Capt. Jeff Fobb from the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue's Venom Response Unit, holds a python during the kick-off ceremonies for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's month-long "Python Challenge" in Davie, Fla. on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013. The 13-foot reptile was captured in a backyard swimming pool in 2012. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter) AP

It's hard to pin down exactly how many Burmese pythons slither through Florida's Everglades, but officials say their effect is glaringly obvious. According to a study released last year, sightings of raccoons, opossums, bobcats, rabbits and other mammals in the Everglades are down as much as 99 percent in areas where pythons are known to live.

It's believed that the pythons are devouring the native wildlife and officials worry the snakes' voracious appetite will undermine the ongoing, multimillion-dollar effort to restore natural water flow through the Everglades.

Bergeron led U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson into the Everglades to hunt pythons Thursday afternoon. They splashed from their airboat through knee-deep water into several islands that rise in small bumps above the sawgrass, but they always emerged empty-handed.

Officials say the number of pythons caught during the contest isn't as important as the data they provide.

“I'm going to be ecstatic if we see 100,” said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida professor of wildlife ecology who is helping the commission with the contest.

He continued to low-ball expectations for the final tally. “I'm happy with 11. I'm going to be happy with whatever we have. The small number only proves that they're really hard to find,” he said.

iol news pic Python Challenge~3 In this Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 photo taken in the Florida Everglades, wildlife commissioner Ron Bergeron, left, and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., walk though knee deep swampy water and mud as they hunt for Burmese Pythons. Nearly 800 people have signed up to hunt Burmese pythons on public lands in Florida as part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's month-long "Python Challenge." Experts say the invasive species is decimating native wildlife in the Florida Everglades. For the first time, the public is joining licensed hunters in the search for the snakes. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter) AP

The state hopes to use the information from python necropsies -particularly what's in their stomachs - to improve their attempts at dealing with the snakes.

“Our list of what pythons eat is not complete yet,” Mazzotti said.

The population of Burmese pythons, an invasive species in Florida, likely developed from pets released into the wild, either intentionally or in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They can grow to be more than 20 feet long and have no natural enemies in Florida other than very large alligators or cold weather, which drives heat-seeking snakes onto sunny roads and levees.

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

Mazzotti had one tip for hunters frustrated by the pythons' near-invisibility: Stop and listen for a dry, rustling sound in the grass.

“It sounds like something large,” he said. - Sapa-AP

iol news pic Python Challenge~2 In this Jan. 12, 2013 photo, Christopher Padgett, left, and Matthew Manus, from Sebring, Fla. leave their campsite in the Big Cypress National Preserve for their five-day python hunt. The recommended method for killing pythons is a gunshot to the brain, or decapitation to reduce the threat. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter) AP

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