Python Challenge: Florida hunt ends today with 50 pythons caught, tens of thousands in hiding

NAPLES, Fla. - They had guns, machetes and good intentions.

That wasn't enough for most of the 1,500 snake chasers who signed up for Florida's month-long Burmese python hunt, which ends at midnight today.

Heading into the final weekend of the state's Python Challenge, just 50 of the nonnative, nonvenomous constrictors had been wrestled out of the marshes and hammocks of the Everglades and Big Cypress swamp.

"The way they were talking, I would have thought there would be a lot more than that," said Naples auto mechanic Harold Clark, 49, who tried twice with his nephew, Tom Clark, 37, of Sarasota, to catch and kill a python. "I saw nothing but alligators and birds."

Scientists have estimated the South Florida python population at anywhere from tens of thousands to more than 100,000. The snakes, thought to be escapees from breeding plants or unwanted pets, pose a threat to native species and to an ecosystem that taxpayers are spending billions of dollars to restore.

The hunt, which kicked off Jan. 12, has had amateurs and experts from 38 states and one Canadian province scouring roadsides, levees, canals and tree islands accessible only by airboat — and has left them scratching their heads.

"This has really been an unprecedented amount of effort to catch Burmese pythons," said Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which sponsored the hunt.

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She said the Conservation Commission will survey hunters who signed up to see how many times they went out and for how long to get a better idea of the effort.

The low kill rate doesn't necessarily mean the python problem has been oversold, Segelson said. Pythons are well-camouflaged and live in areas that are difficult to access. Besides that, Everglades National Park, the epicenter of the python invasion, is off-limits to hunting.

Some hunters theorized that warm temperatures during the hunt kept their quarry concealed rather than out in the open or on roads sunning themselves to warm up after a chill. Trapping wasn't allowed because of the risk to native wildlife.

While the hunt might not have made much of a dent in the python population, it attracted a ton of attention around the world and helped raise awareness about the problems posed by invasive species, she said.

"We're very pleased with how it's gone," Segelson said.

Some feared turning hordes of weapon-toting humans loose in unfamiliar Everglades territory, but reports of lost or injured snake hunters have been as scarce as the pythons.

Two men, 22 and 25, from Tennessee had to be rescued in western Broward County after they became disoriented and stranded while python hunting. They were treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration.

The University of Florida, which is collecting the captured snakes, isn't releasing details of who has done the catching, the size of the snakes caught or where they've been found until a closing event Feb. 16 at Zoo Miami.

"We haven't been surprised," said University of Florida biologist Frank Mazzotti, who is compiling the results.

The professional python hunter and amateur that catches the most pythons will each win $1,500, and $1,000 will go to the hunter who catches the longest python.

Hunters had 24 hours to drop off their dead python at a collection station along with a data sheet that shows the snake's size, the GPS location where it was caught and the sort of habitat where it was found. They are able to get the snake back for its skin.

As for whether there will be a second Python Challenge, that is yet to be determined, said Segelson, with the Conservation Commission.

Clark's python hunting days are behind him.

"It seems pointless," he said.

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