A total of 21 Burmese pythons have been captured in the Florida Everglades in a contest designed to reduce the population of these serpents, which are not native to the area and are eliminating fauna endemic to this delicate ecosystem.

That was announced Friday by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation, or FWC, the organizer of this controversial contest, which will award prizes to whoever catches the most Burmese pythons during the course of this month and to whoever catches the biggest one.

About 1,000 people have signed up for the contest, for which a hunting license is required.

Among the participants in the contest, which began last Saturday and runs through Feb. 10, is Florida's Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who as yet seems not to have caught one of the serpents.

The politician said this week that it is vital to reduce the presence of a creature that is eradicating native species from the Everglades.

"The Everglades is one of the great natural wonders of the entire Earth, and the entire ecological apple cart is being upset by this invasive species," Nelson said.

The politician said this week that it is necessary to reduce the presence of pythons because they "eat everything in the Everglades: bobcats, deer, even alligator and maybe endangered Florida panther," he said.

In some parts of the Everglades where they are most abundant, the Burmese pythons have driven down the population of other animals like field mice, possums, raccoons, rabbits and practically any other mammal by as much as 99 percent in recent years.

Burmese pythons are believed to have infested the Everglades because specimens were purposely released there by people who had them as pets or had to leave them involuntarily when Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992, forcing their owners to evacuate their homes for several days.

The delicate ecosystem of Everglades National Park has no species capable of standing up to these reptiles, except possibly the very largest alligators. EFE