Florida python hunting contest draws hundreds

* Month-long event features top prize of $1,500

* About 500 contestants registered so far

* Swamp itself may pose biggest challenge for amateur

hunters

ORLANDO, Fla., Jan 9 (Reuters) - 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.

But the idea of luring weapon-wielding amateurs into the

harsh environment of the Everglades has raised some alarms.

"I just thought it was as exciting as could be. It's a once-

in-a-lifetime opportunity," said contestant Ron Polster, a

retired salesman from Ohio whose closest encounter with the

swamp has been from the highway heading south for the winter.

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.

A Burmese python found in Florida last year set records as

the largest ever captured in the state at 17-feet, 7-inches (5.4

meters). The snake weighed nearly 165 pounds (75 kg).

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.

"I was hoping there would be a lot of machetes and not a lot

of guns," said Polster, the retired salesman. He said he worries

"these idiots will be firing all over the place."

Shawn Heflick, star of the National Geographic "Wild"

television show "Python Hunters," told Reuters that despite the

formidable size of the snakes, he expects the swamp itself, with

its alligators, crocodiles and venomous snakes, to pose a

greater threat to the contestants.

"You get these people going down there, they'll get lost,

they'll get dehydrated, they'll get sucked dry by mosquitoes,"

Heflick said.

Segelson said the wildlife agency will provide training on

the use of GPS devices and on identifying venomous snakes at the

kick-off event. In the meantime, she said, contestants should be

familiarizing themselves with the Everglades environment, just

as they should before entering any other strange territory.

Heflick said most of the contestants likely were drawn to

the Python Challenge by the romantic mystique of bagging a giant

predator. He expects few will last long in the hunt.

"The vast majority of them will never see a python. The vast

majority of them will probably curtail their hunting very

quickly when they figure out there's a lot of mosquitoes, it's

hot, it's rather boring sometimes - most of the time really, and

I think a lot of them will go home," Heflick said.

(Editing by Tom Brown and Dan Grebler)

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