by Jessica Giles | July 1, 2020

Hunting Pythons with Science and Speed

The Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida is using science and innovation to battle the state's invasive species.

Monica Lasky, an intern at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, captures a male Burmese python in Southwest Florida. Photography courtesy of Conservancy of Southwest Florida

Ian Bartoszek is on a first-name basis with Elvis. 

The two first met back in January 2013 on the swampy outskirts of Collier County, although he wasn’t exactly the “Love Me Tender” type. This Elvis was a bit more unwieldy, sporting 11 feet of dark, blotchy scales and 50 pounds of muscle. He also became a critical ally in the fight against the burgeoning Burmese python population in South Florida. 

“When we first caught him and tagged him, and released him, he just took off,” said Bartoszek, a wildlife biologist and the environmental science project manager at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “Elvis left the building.” 

The day Bartoszek met Elvis, an adult male Burmese python, a long and scientific game of hide and seek began. It’s all part of an innovative effort to remove the invasive pythons, which proliferated from pet-owners releasing their unwanted snakes into the Everglades, where they have decimated the native wildlife population. This particular practice, known as the scout snake method, began in 2013 thanks to a mix of public and private partnerships but expanded in 2019 with the support of the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida

Elvis’s story is just one of many initiatives, ranging from coral reef restoration to wildlife conservation to invasive species eradication, backed by the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida. The foundation raises and distributes funds against invasive species such as Burmese pythons and lionfish, supporting diver training and research on acoustic lures to remove large numbers of lionfish on sensitive reefs, as well as the scout snake program. 

When researchers first captured Elvis, they took him back to the lab where they inserted a radio-transmitter to track his location, and then released him back into the wild. Elvis unknowingly became the conservancy’s first scout snake, a spy of sorts that leads scientists to other pythons—often large, breeding females—that they can then remove and humanely euthanize.

Wildlife biologists from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida capture a female python after tracking a “scout” snake. Photography courtesy of Conservancy of Southwest Florida

“That’s where this method shines is that these males, if they’re good at what they do, they’re like a heat-seeking missile to a breeding female Burmese python that you would almost never find otherwise,” Bartoszek said. 

The scout snake method combined with other forms of hunting have helped the conservancy successfully remove more than 15,000 pounds of pythons just outside of Naples, and that’s just the beginning of the foundation’s innovative assault on the slithery invaders.

In 2020, the foundation also helped fund the Python Bowl, a reptilian spin on the Super Bowl where participants compete to see who can capture the most Burmese pythons, as well as the longest and heaviest. The 10-day snake-snatching frenzy resulted in the removal of 80 pythons, one of them clocking in at a whopping 62 pounds. 

The fight against Burmese pythons isn’t just for those willing to get down and dirty; even high-end designers have partnered with the foundation to eradicate the snakes. Ximena Kavalekas, a Miami-based luxury handbag designer, donates a portion of her proceeds to the Python Patrol, a training course that teaches everyday Floridians how to safely capture, euthanize and report Burmese pythons. 

“I am so fortunate to be able to work with, and contribute to such an amazing foundation,” Kavalekas said. “I have learned so much through the Python Patrol about what is happening in the Everglades.”

If you’re not in the market for a luxury handbag, and you’re not the type to go wrangle a python yourself, you can still contribute to the cause by purchasing the “Conserve Wildlife” black bear license plate from the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida. These proceeds fund a variety of the foundation’s conservation efforts, from removing harmful non-native species to preserving the Sunshine State’s unique wildlife like the endangered grasshopper sparrow. Whether it’s supporting cutting-edge invasive species removal tactics or throwing a Super Bowl-sized hunting competition, the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida is fostering a Sunshine State more wild and beautiful than ever. 

Get to know the women on the front lines of the battle against invasive Burmese pythons