- The state of Florida has launch the month-long 2013 Python Challenge
- The goal is to cull the exploding population of Burmese pythons, wildlife officials say
- Participants are given training for safety, instructed to kill the snakes humanely
- Researchers say pythons have devastated rabbit, fox, opossum and bobcat populations
Burmese pythons have been threatening Florida's ecosystem for years, so the state is turning to the public for help in the form of a hunting contest to cull the population.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Saturday launched the 2013 Python Challenge.
"We are hoping to gauge from the python challenge the effectiveness of using an incentive-based model as a tool to address this problem," says Florida Wildlife Commission spokeswoman Carli Segelson.
A grand prize of $1,500 will be awarded to the person who kills the most pythons, and $1,000 will go to the person who bags the longest one. According to the rules, road kill will not be eligible.
Participants paid a $25 registration fee and completed an online training course. The training focuses on safety while hunting pythons.
"It's very difficult to find these animals and we don't really have a good strategy on how to contain this population," said Linda Friar, spokeswoman for Everglades National Park. "This is a pilot to see if it will gain public interest in areas that you can hunt so that they would be able to remove and capture these snakes."
The Burmese python is native to Southeast Asia and was first found in the Everglades in 1979, according to researchers at the University of Florida.
These snakes were determined to be an established species in 2000. It is believed that the snakes were originally pets that found their way into Everglades National Park.
The Everglades, known as the river of grass, is a vast area with a climate perfect for the pythons to hide and thrive. And thrive they do: The largest Burmese python ever found in Florida -- its 17 foot, 6-inch carcass weighed 164.5 pounds -- was harvested in the Everglades in August. Researchers at the University of Florida found 87 eggs inside the snake.
Friar told CNN last year that it is believed "tens of thousands" of Burmese pythons live in the Everglades.
The snakes prey on native wildlife such as the endangered Key Largo wood rat and the endangered wood stork. The largest prey, Friar told CNN, was a 76-pound deer that was found in the stomach of a 16-foot python a few months ago.
Earlier this year, researchers at Virginia Tech University, Davidson College and the U.S. Geological Survey reported that populations of rabbits and foxes have disappeared and numbers of raccoons, opossums and bobcats have dropped as much as 99%.
Last January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service instituted a ban on the importation of Burmese pythons -- along with three other species of exotic snake -- and their eggs.
The Python Challenge has laid out four specific areas where the snakes can be harvested, and the park is off-limits to the general public.
"The park is very restricted on what it can do as far as animal captures and removal," Friar said.
The python problem has spread to other wildlife management areas in the state besides the Everglades.
"We're supportive of the state exploring various measures in order to reduce the populations outside the park," Friar said. In the end, she said, "it will also reduce the population of the snakes that get into the park."
According to the rules of the contest, reducing the population means killing the snakes.
"We want to make sure this is done in a humane way," Segelson said. The competition's website lists several ways to kill a python "in a humane manner that results in immediate loss of consciousness and destruction of the brain."
It suggests shooting the snake in the head with a firearm or decapitating it with a machete.
Wildlife officials say the 2013 Python Challenge is not only about killing snakes. "One of things that is very important to us is to educate the public about the Burmese python and how this species is impacting the state of Florida," Segelson said.
"We're hoping to inform people ... if they do have exotic pets that they understand the importance of not releasing them into the wild."
The contest ends at midnight on February 10.