On the Hunt for Exotic Lizards in the Florida Everglades

Dennis Giardina was walking up a sun-blasted hill just outside Homestead Air Reserve Base when he spotted the monster. From the forked black tongue to the whipping tail of tightly corded muscle, the creature stretched seven feet through the dead grass. Mottled green and yellow scales glinted in the sunlight. Razor claws arched from five dexterous fingers.

Giardina stared in shock. Then the 46-year-old botanist with a salt-and-pepper beard motioned to his colleagues.

He lured the beast to a fence marking the base's edge. When the animal stuck its sinuous neck through a gap in the chainlink, his partners pinched the fence together, trapping it. Giardina grabbed a jagged chunk of stone and slammed it straight onto the lizard's spine. The animal died instantly.

That was August 2008. Giardina and company had caught one of the largest Nile monitor lizards trapped in South Florida. The wily African import eats everything and routinely grows as long as an NBA power forward is tall.

But monitors don't get much attention. Following the recent killing of a Central Florida toddler by a Burmese python, local media have focused recently on the dangers presented by those 20-foot-long giants. They're large enough to eat small alligators and sufficiently voracious to digest anything else they can fit in their gaping mouths. Unfortunately, they're likely too widespread to ever root out.

Other invaders — such as the monitor lizard, the purple swamp hen, and the lionfish — are on the horizon. "Our best hope is to catch invasives before they can establish a foothold," Giardina says. "If we catch them early enough, we can eliminate them before they spread. With the monitors, I just hope we're not too late."

Explorers and settlers have bombed the Glades with foreign plants and animals for hundreds of years. Hernando de Soto brought along Spanish wild hogs during his trek through Florida in the late 1530s. The descendents of those pigs still run wild today.

Plenty of other species have followed their lead. Cuban tree frogs found their way to South Florida on commercial boats in the 1930s and have wiped out their native counterparts in the region. Dozens of Asian fish species have thrived in Everglades canal systems and Florida Bay. The Sunshine State now has twice as many exotic lizard species in the wild as natives.

Then there are the plants. South Floridians in the mid-20th Century dotted their properties with ornamentals such as melaleuca, Old World climbing fern, and Brazilian pepper, which quickly spread from the suburbs to the swamps and have crushed native tree islands and cypress groves ever since.

"It's really difficult to control the influx of exotic species in a place like South Florida," says Scott Hardin, the exotic-species section leader at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "You have an incredibly diverse community bringing things here from their native lands."

Sometime in the early '90s, Burmese pythons were released into the wild around the region. No one knows for sure where they came from. Some say the snakes escaped when Hurricane Andrew blasted dozens of pet shops to bits. Others blame amateur collectors who dumped the animals in the Glades.

Either way, sometime in the mid-'90s, the pythons reached "critical mass," when they could easily find eligible partners, breed, and rear their young. By the mid-'00s, park rangers had removed more than a thousand pythons from Everglades National Park, and the creatures had been spotted from Big Cypress to Kissimmee.

That's where Giardina comes into the picture. The deep-voiced scientist grew up outside Boston and then dropped out of college and moved to Puerto Rico in his mid-20s, eventually finding a job in the Caribbean National Forest. He has made a career in conservation. Early last year, he left a position running the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park to head the fight against invasive species across South Florida.

Today, he cochairs a group of scientists with the unwieldy acronym Everglades CISMA (Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area), which is dedicated to preventing other species from reaching critical mass. "I'm an animal lover, and I really love big reptiles. The last thing I thought I'd be doing is trying to catch and kill animals," he says as he carefully ties a rotting chicken leg inside a trap near Homestead. "But you've got to think of the bigger picture."

Two years ago, CISMA set up a website to report sightings of the hundreds of invasive species that threaten the Glades. A volunteer "early detection, rapid response" team investigates each sighting.

Around 2001, someone on Grassy Key lost track of a few unusual pets: a group of Gambian pouch rats. The gigantic rodents grow to three feet long, the size of a raccoon. By 2005, the rats had multiplied, and soon dozens were running around the island, feasting on garbage. Residents contacted state authorities, who alerted the animal experts.

Four years ago, a team led by Hardin began setting traps and motion detectors, trying to wipe out the rats before they could hitch a ride on a trash truck to mainland Florida. It worked. The team has caught more than 180 of the animals and hasn't spotted one in more than three months. "That really looks like a success story so far," Hardin says. "We caught them early enough to kill most of them."

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.

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 will likely 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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Tim Elfrink is an award-winning investigative reporter, the managing editor of the Miami New Times and the co-author of "Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez and the Quest to End Baseball's Steroid Era." Since 2008, he's written in-depth pieces on police corruption, fatal shootings and social justice issues across South Florida. He's won the George Polk Award and has been a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink