The fight to eradicate Burmese pythons from the Florida Everglades has intertwined with New York’s haute fashion scene in a project launched by a group of environmental activists who have already experienced success working with the skins of other invasive species.
The Tampa-based team, founded by a group of former college friends with a passion for scuba diving, cut their teeth transforming the skins of non-native lionfish off the US south-east coast and Caribbean Sea into high-end sneakers in partnership with the Italian shoemaker P448.
But with an estimated 150,000 unwanted pythons slithering through the Everglades, devouring ever greater numbers of native wildlife from white-tailed deer to rabbits and rats, according to a recent US Geological Survey (USGS) report, the new venture converting snake skins into designer handbags presents a more substantial challenge.
“Pythons in the Everglades is such a colossal problem, you have to corral so many resources, so much energy, and so many interests to try to tackle it,” said Aarav Chavda, co-founder of the operation the friends have called Inversa Leathers.
“We know we’re not riding in with a silver bullet. It’s a years-long process to combat it, and develop better tools. But the really great thing about this is you have very invested and interested consumers pushing on this problem.
“It brings a lot more attention, resources, capacity, in all walks along the way.”
The process starts with hunters in the Everglades tracking, trapping and humanely killing pythons, which can grow up to 7m in length. Inversa processes and tans the skins, which Piper & Skye, a New York accessory brand known for environmental ethics as well as its upmarket leather products, makes into a range of colorful handbags. Those at the top of the range go for almost $1,000.
The project utilises a bounty system similar to the one Inversa operates to incentivise low-income fishers in the Caribbean to whom coral-destroying lionfish are otherwise worthless.
“How a product is made, what it’s made of, and the people who make it are just as important as the product itself,” said Joanna MacDonald, creative director of Piper & Skye.
Chavda said he expected the number of pythons caught and processed this way to grow as consumers become aware of the story behind the handbags.
Wildlife authorities in Florida, in conjunction with university researchers and environmental groups, have employed a variety of tactics in recent years to try to get a handle on the python problem, which the USGS has described as “one of the most intractable” invasive species challenges in the world.
The Florida fish and wildlife commission (FWC) runs an annual 10-day python challenge with a $10,000 prize for the most prolific hunter. The 2022 winner caught 28 pythons. Previous efforts have included training a python-sniffing dog, who wilted in the south Florida heat, and fitting amorous male snakes with electronic trackers to lead hunters to females.
And in 2017, two renowned snake catchers from India’s mountain-dwelling Irula tribe bagged only 33 pythons after chanting across the Everglades for two months.
But pythons, the new apex predator of the Florida swamplands after usurping the native American alligator, continue to reign supreme. The USGS survey earlier this year showed the python population, which experts think began with pet owners releasing unwanted reptiles in the 1980s, is spreading further and faster than ever before.
To Chavda and his team, that lends urgency to their project. “Pythons will chase anything and they’re really bad,” he said.
“The Everglades used to be abounded with sound and energy and life, there used to be songbirds, and marsh hares, and rabbits and otters, just tons of native life. Now it’s just silent and totally dead.
“What we’re trying to do is just bring attention, focus and the power of the consumer, probably the most powerful interest group on the planet, and focus that all on a very specific problem.” - Guardian