About 600 participants have signed on for a unique, month-long hunting event that began this weekend in Florida’s Everglades National Park. The 2016 Python Challenge kicked off on Saturday and will continue until 14 February.

Burmese python in the Everglades National Park.

Burmese python in the Everglades National Park. Image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / CC BY 2.0

At the conclusion of the Challenge, cash prizes of up to US$5000 will be awarded across two categories – most pythons and longest python – to individual participants and teams. An Invasive Species Awareness Festival was held on the first day of the Challenge, which will conclude on 27 February with an awards ceremony at the Long Key Nature Center in Davie.

Growing up to 23 feet long and 600 pounds, the Burmese python is believed to have a significant impact on the national park’s ecology, especially on small mammals such as rabbits, raccoons and oppossums. A 2012 report by the US Geological Survey concluded that the enormous snake is “wreaking havoc on one of America’s most beautiful, treasured and naturally bountiful ecosystems.”

Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission first launched the initiative in 2013 in a bid to curb the population of the park’s Burmese python, one of several introduced species in the park, and among the most invasive.

Nearly 2000 Burmese pythons have been found in the park in the last fifteen years, but park authorities believe that the total number of the snakes in the Everglades is much bigger. Despite their size, the snakes’ camouflage and reclusiveness make them difficult to find. During the inaugural Python Challenge, 1600 participants managed to come up with just 68 snakes.

Native to south and Southeast Asia, the pythons were once kept as pets in Florida. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew destroyed a python breeding facility, as a result of which pythons escaped into the wild.

It’s not too late to register as a participant in the Python Challenge: Visit the website for more information: pythonchallenge.org