First Lady kicks off Burmese python hunt in Florida Everglades

800 compete to remove Florida’s invasive snakes

First Lady Casey DeSantis (in red) holds an invasive python along with other state leaders in Miami. (WJXT)

MIAMI – Florida’s annual Python Challenge began Friday at 8 a.m., and First Lady Casey DeSantis visited Everglades Airboat Expeditions in Miami to help kick off the hunt, which runs through 5 p.m. Aug. 15.

More than 800 competitors will be trudging through the Florida Everglades for the next eight days, in search of invasive Burmese pythons that will bring in thousands of dollars in prize money.

Prizes include $2,500 for the most pythons captured and $1,500 for the longest snake. Last year, the first-prize winner captured 223 pythons, while the $1,500 winner bagged a snake that was more than 15 feet long. Each python must be dead, with hunters facing disqualification if they kill them inhumanely or kill a native snake.

“This is significant because every python removed is one less invasive species preying on our native birds, mammals and reptiles,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis announced that South Florida Water Management District Board Member “Alligator” Ron Bergeron was also offering an additional $10,000 bonus prize for the contest.

“We are gaining on this invasive snake that is destroying the natural food chain, and without a healthy food chain, you cannot have a healthy environment,” Bergeron said.

The snakes have virtually no natural enemies in the Everglades and have decimated native populations of mammals, birds and other reptiles. Since 2000, more than 17,000 pythons have been removed from the Everglades ecosystem, according to a news release. A female python can lay as many as 100 eggs a year.

DeSantis said Bergeron promised to let her drive the airboat when they went out for a hunt on Friday -- an adventure she called a “bucket list” item.

During Friday’s news conference, DeSantis also mentioned that one of the pythons that was removed from the Everglades was turned into a pair of snake-skin boots that she gave the governor for their 10th anniversary.

“They’re a little loud, but if you ever see the governor wearing a pair of python-skinned boots, that’s our 10-year anniversary present,” DeSantis said.

People must register to participate and complete an online training course for the event, which typically draws hundreds from across the country. Last year’s “Python Challenge” involved more than 600 people from 25 states.

Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis said this year’s state budget includes $3 million specifically for python removal in the Everglades, including technology such as infrared sensors to locate the hard-to-see snakes in the wild. A key point of the snake event, the governor said, is to raise awareness about the threat and enable people to take part.

So far, the registered hunters represent 32 states and Canada. Registrations are being accepted throughout the competition. It costs $25 to register and participants must also complete an online training course.

About the Authors:

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.