Glades Invaders

It's too late to stop the pythons. The real question is, what's next?

In 2008, Giardina's group learned about a quickly spreading flock of sacred ibis. The handsome black-and-white birds with gently curved beaks likely escaped from zoos after Andrew. In the Glades, they feasted on food key to endangered native species.

So Giardina gathered $25,000 in grants for a team to attach radio bands on a few of the birds. Then they tracked the ibises to their roosting grounds. After months on airboats, the crew blasted the feathered pests using shotguns. The team killed around 70, and no new sightings have been reported in about six months. "They tend to roost together, so it was easy for us to find them and kill them," Giardina says.

The Burmese pythons are more difficult to find. They are well camouflaged and don't hang out in groups. The problem received a huge publicity boost this summer after a pet python killed a 2-year-old girl outside Tampa, and Sen. Bill Nelson dangled a 16-foot-long snakeskin on the U.S. Senate floor, asking for eradication money. Gov. Charlie Crist pledged money for python bounty hunters.

Dennis Giardina: This monster must go.
Courtesy of Dennis Giardina
Dennis Giardina: This monster must go.

But a python hunting team has killed fewer than a dozen snakes since it formed last month. The best python hunter in the state, a bearded South Florida Water Management District expert named Bob Hill, has nailed fewer than 40 this year. Scientists estimate the snakes number in the thousands. "You can't find them reliably to kill them," Hardin says. "I don't believe we'll ever be able to eradicate pythons."

Nile monitor lizards aren't nearly so widespread in the region — yet. They're omnivorous, voracious, and hardy. They thrive in a subtropical climate. And, as of last summer, they've shown signs of nearing critical mass.

No one doubts how far they can spread. A colony was released in Cape Coral in the early '90s, and today more than 5,000 roam the canals and subdivisions there. They likely will never be exterminated on the Gulf Coast. On the Atlantic side of the state, there are fewer. Since last summer, Giardina and his group have caught and killed 13 in and around Homestead.

On a recent humid weekday, Giardina receives a phone call from one of his colleagues checking the traps. He assumes they caught a monitor lizard. It wasn't. In fact, they snared a black-and-white Colombian tegu, another huge reptile sold in pet shops around Florida. Giardina sighs at the news. "So I guess we've got tegus running wild out here too," he says. "You never know what's next in this state."

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