It may come as a surprise to some that Florida's Python Challenge 2013, a monthlong event to roundup Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades, is not intended to curb the population of the snakes in the swamps.
Despite the hype, the cash rewards and 1,000 gun-toting snake hunters, many of whom who would be hard pressed to recognize a Burmese python, organizers say the real reason for the great python hunt is to draw attention to problems the snakes are causing to the native wildlife and the fragile ecology of the glades.
If a few snakes -- about 30 at last count -- get shot to death or have their heads chopped off, well, who's going to miss them? Experts estimate the Everglades is home to about 10,000 Burmese pythons, many of them former pets that escaped their homes or were dumped out to live wild and free.
The snakes now eat native creatures and sometimes slither into neighborhoods to swallow up a pet or two.
The snake hunt, which began earlier this month and runs through Feb. 10, offers a $1,500 cash prize to the hunter who brings in the most snakes, and $1,000 to the holder of the longest one. There are few rules, but the main one is that all snakes must be dead.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission organized the hunt, but instead of using the event as a way to cull the population, officials say they just want to raise awareness of the problem and perhaps convince people to rethink the pet python choice. They admit to be surprised even 30 snakes have so far been killed, which either speaks to the snakes' ability to hide or to the hunters' lack of skills.
I understand the need to keep non-native species in check when they threaten native populations. And no, it's not a matter of preference for one species over another. Remove a native and you topple the first domino. Natives rely on other natives, and fiddling with that upsets the entire ecological balance. But there is serious debate about whether the pythons are causing that much of a disturbance. Some point out that cats kill more native species that pythons, but no one has yet sanctioned Cat Challenge 2013.
And with that many pythons inhabiting the swamps, there is little chance of removing them.
Surely there are other less deadly ways to draw attention to the problem, something that would involve actually working toward addressing the problem as well as raising awareness.
Contact Joan Morris at firstname.lastname@example.org; or P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.