CLAXTON — In its 45th year, the festival formerly known as the Claxton Rattlesnake Roundup is undergoing something of a midlife transformation.
The Evans County Wildlife Club, which has hosted the event each year since 1968, recently announced that the Claxton Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival, set for March 10-11, will no longer include the buying and selling of snakes for competition and prizes. Due to snake hunters dwindling and a move toward wildlife education and conservation, the Wildlife Club board unanimously voted to drop the buying and selling of rattlesnakes at the event, which drew about 18,000 people last year.
All other elements of the festival — a parade, a pageant, a foot race, a two-day arts and crafts show and live musical entertainment — will be retained, Wildlife Club President Bruce Purcell said. He said that rattlesnakes and snakes of other species still will be exhibited live.
“We want to shift gears from a rattlesnake roundup where everybody came to see rattlesnakes to a wildlife festival where we’re promoting wildlife and educating people about wildlife and the conservation of wildlife,” Purcell said.
Last year, seven hunters brought in about 100 snakes, Purcell acknowledged. The snakes were sold to an out-of-state buyer. With this element of the festival eliminated, Purcell said, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes instead will be exhibited in about equal numbers through exhibits obtained in cooperation with the DNR.
Other attractions that enhance the festival as a venue for wildlife education are being expanded, Purcell said. Among these are flight shows featuring bald eagles and other birds of prey from Georgia Southern University’s Wildlife Education Center, “Let’s Get Wild” shows put on by independent wildlife educator Steve Scruggs and the Southeast Spring Classic Turkey Calling Contest, sanctioned by the National Wild Turkey Federation annually in conjunction with the festival.
Additionally, new exhibits of snakes, fish and other wildlife are being developed in cooperation with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
The rattlesnake roundup began in 1968 after an 8-year-old Claxton boy was bitten by a rattlesnake. He survived, through a long ordeal of medical procedures. With the festival growing around it, the hunt went on year after year as hunters ferreted out snakes to bring live for exhibition.
The festival will maintain a stance friendly to lawful hunting and fishing as essential for wildlife conservation, Purcell said. He added that organizers hope to reach out to other groups such as the Ogeechee Riverkeeper and the Georgia Wildlife Federation to augment the exhibits.
Over the years, the number of local people actually collecting snakes dwindled. Snake hunters instead came from farther afield in Georgia and even Florida.
The festival is the largest annual event for Claxton and Evans County, a community about 11,000 people 50 miles west of Savannah. Last year’s festival drew about 18,000 people, and Purcell said he hopes this year’s will top 20,000. The club contributes proceeds to various charities, funds scholarships for local high school students, and makes its building, pavilions and grounds available for other community events throughout the year.